The new iPhone was unveiled yesterday, and with it, one of Apple’s worst-kept secrets was finally made official. The iPhone 7 will finally do away with the 3.5mm headphone jack.
This isn’t the first time Apple has “added” features to its hardware by removing them, but this one may be the most controversial. Apple’s previous deletions of the floppy drive (on the iMac), the optical drive (on the Macbook Air), and the newest Macbook which got rid of almost every port except USB and (ironically) the 3.5mm headphone jack didn’t rely on proprietary hardware.
As an Android user, this is an interesting discussion. Android has already had its first phone announced without a headphone jack (Moto Z), but Lenovo has nowhere near the market share of Apple, so its impact has been minimal (at best).
With that said, here are some positives and negatives that I can see about Apple’s decision.
Higher Quality Headphone Audio
One big advantage that removal of the headphone jack has – higher quality audio from the Lightning port. This is because headphones can now use their own built-in DAC (digital to analog converter) instead of the iPhone’s DAC to improve and tune the sound quality for a specific headphone model. Since the Lightning port can provide power, this also means that wired headphones using Lightning can use active noise-cancelling with power provided from the iPhone. This will make the headphones lighter, but drain the phone’s battery quicker.
Of course, this was already possible – but the elimination of the 3.5mm jack may “encourage” more rapid development of these kinds of headphones.
Begun, The Standards War Has
While lots of people are comparing the removal of the 3.5mm port to the removal of the floppy and optical drives, there is one very important difference that few mention.
The Lightning port is owned and used by Apple – it is not an open standard like the USB ports used on Apple’s computers. This means that headphone makers that choose to make a Lightning set of headphones will have to pay royalties to Apple for the privilege. This means that these headphones (or even Lightning to 3.5mm adapters) won’t be cheap.
I’d be a lot more excited about the potential progress that could be made in the direct of audio quality if Apple had chosen to use an open standard port (cough *USB C*) instead of their proprietary port.
The Apple cynic in me (which has shrunk over the years, admittedly) sees the choosing of Lightning over USB C as a pretty transparent money-grab. With iPhone sales flattening recently and the tablet market barely hanging on, this seems like it may just be an easy way to up their revenue stream.
The Dongle (Tee-hee!)
While I find it a bit on the pretentious side when Apple says it takes “courage” to remove the 3.5mm port, it’s downright odd when they remove the port to eliminate wires and then give you yet another wire to keep track of.
Dongles are obnoxious, and while it’s easy to just leave them on your 3.5mm-wired headphones, if you have a newer Macbook, you’ll have to remove the dongle to plug into that device. If Apple had either kept the 3.5mm jack or used USB C this particular problem wouldn’t exist. For a company that (rightfully) prides itself on elegant solutions, this feels pretty damn sloppy.
A more elegant approach (to me) would involve a multi-year process:
Year 1 – the iPhone has both connectors (3.5mm and Lightning) but ships with the Lightning earbuds. This way lots of Apple users now have Lightning-compatible equipment and can see the advantages. Also, this encourages manufacturers to start working on Lightning headphones. Maybe introduce the AirPods with this launch or the next year, and have two years of Lightning connector earbuds included with 3.5mm-equipped iPhones.
Year 2 – Now remove the 3.5mm jack. Most Apple customers will have at least one set of Lightning earbuds, and will at least be aware of the advantages. 3rd-party headphone makers will likely have seen the writing on the wall, and released products for those who don’t like the standard-issue Apple earbuds, so no one feels forced to use an inelegant dongle (which could be sold separately, still) or make the transition to Bluetooth.
I do hope that this move by Apple will encourage the development of Bluetooth audio, though.
Bluetooth has been decent-but-not-great for listening to audio for quite a while. While my experience with Bluetooth is 99% Android, no matter what devices I’m using, I get random cutouts, stuttering, and flaky or not-reliable connections. If Apple can encourage the makers of Bluetooth devices to up the audio and connection quality and reliability, this could be a big win for everyone.
Of course, wireless headphones mean more batteries, so now everyone has another device with a battery to keep track of, and Apple’s AirBuds – while they look neat – seem overpriced and easily lost.
Not to mention the number of people who use 3.5mm audio while charging (either in the car, at work, using a battery case, etc.). These users will now need another dongle (that word will never stop making me giggle) to be able to use their phone as they currently do.
The price of progress, I suppose.
Since the removal of the audio port was announced several months ago, I was certainly interested in how Apple would frame the deletion of an important feature. I didn’t expect Apple’s invocation of “courage” (maybe they confused it with “leverage”?), but it did lead to some pretty hilarious reactions on Twitter:
“We’re going to move from an open standard to a closed, proprietary, expensive competitor because COURAGE.” #AppleEvent
— Ben Werdmüller (@benwerd) September 7, 2016
the foot soldiers of Agincourt; the D-Day paratroopers; the headphone jack guys https://t.co/Oo1M1jT2Fa
— laura olin (@lauraolin) September 7, 2016
— Stephen Shankland (@stshank) September 7, 2016
— Miemo Penttinen (@miemo) September 7, 2016
All snark aside, it will be interesting to see where this goes. I’m sure the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus will sell well (new iPhones always do), but it will be interesting to see how average consumers react, can the AirBuds deliver on their promise of high-quality audio, and how the Lightning port and dongle work for those that prefer wired headphones.