On Wednesday, Apple announced that their new iPhone 7 would be the first in the line not to have a dedicated headphone jack. This was met with some controversy and consternation, and I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on the matter.
This is Apple’s M.O.
The first thing that surprises me about the response, honestly, is anyone’s surprise at the move. Apple is notorious for moving away from older technology when they create new devices, or new versions of existing devices. Here’s a brief timeline:
1984: While IBM-styled PC manufacturers are still including 5.25” floppy drives, Apple unveils the first Macintosh computer, equipped with the smaller, yet higher-capacity 3.5” diskette drive. Apple’s last computer with a 5.25” drive would be in their II (“two”) series, the last of that line being 1988’s Apple IIc Plus. PC makers would eventually phase out the 5.25” floppy by the early 1990s.
1998: With the iMac, Apple courts controversy again by removing the 3.5” diskette drive from this new all-in-one form factor, opting strictly for optical media; first in the form of CD-ROM, then DVD-ROM, and finally, rewritable DVD “SuperDrive,” first appearing in 2002’s Flat Panel iMac. Apple would remove the “floppy” drive from its laptops, as well; 1999’s PowerBook G3 would be the first Apple notebook to exclude the diskette drive, in favor of an optical drive.
2008: Speaking of laptops, Apple invents a new model, the MacBook Air (below), boasting unprecedented (for Apple) thinness and lightness in a fully-featured computer. One feature that is notably absent is its optical drive.
Apple is confident, not only that users could rely upon the optional USB SuperDrive for their disk-based needs; but that program installations and media downloads would be performed over the internet, instead of coming from CDs and DVDs. This change coincides with the growth of the iTunes Store (selling music in 2003, TV shows in 2005, and movies in 2006); followed by the arrival of the App Store in 2011, from which users could download their programs directly from Apple, instead of having to insert an installation disc. Ambitiously, Apple both predicts and precipitates the massive shakeup of the disc-based media and software industries.
Apple would eliminate optical drives from its iMac and MacBook Pro in 2012, and it would redesign the Mac Pro desktop tower in 2013 and MacBook in 2015, each without optical drives as a matter of design.
2015: The aforementioned MacBook (below) marks another design change by tossing out all ports but one universal USB-C port for both charging and data interface.
This move would be a boon to the after-market USB hub industry, for users who need to plug in more than one device at the same time, to say nothing of charging the battery in the process.
As history has shown, the iPhone 7’s removal of the headphone jack is just the latest in a long string of bold moves. Anyone who wasn’t prepared for it just hasn’t been paying attention.
Thin is In
During his segment of the keynote, Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, asked the question outright: “Why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone?” He would go on to answer:
Our smartphones are packed with technologies and we all want more. We want bigger, just brighter displays. We want larger batteries, we want faster processors, we want stereo speakers, we want Taptic Engines, we want all of that and it’s all fighting for space within that same enclosure. And maintaining an ancient single purpose analog big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.
And he’s right. We demand a certain thinness from our mobile devices (as long as they’re not prone to bending, as was the case with 2014’s iPhone 6 Plus, shown below).
Removing the analog headphone jack not only frees up that much space on the phone’s shell, but it also allows for further technological expansion inside the phone. This could result in longer battery life, more processing power, or ideally, both.
This also means the removal of an oft-taken-for-granted component in all other smartphones: the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Translating digital audio to conform to analog headphones requires a dedicated chip. Apple has this time opted to leave the audio processing to the headphones; be they from Apple, or from other manufacturers who can focus on higher-quality DACs without the limitations of an iPhone’s internal real estate. These chips can be built in to the plug, the cord, or the headphone itself. Some predict this will mean higher quality sound than an iPhone’s native DAC could have generated. Time will tell.
Moving Toward A Wireless Future: CHARGE!
Apple doesn’t expect its users simply to use the iPhone’s built-in speakers for all future audio needs. After all, not only are they bundling with the new iPhone wired headphones that connect directly to the multi-purpose Lightning jack, but they’re also including an adapter (below) to allow users to plug their existing analog headphones into that jack.
Third party companies like Belkin have already announced splitters, such as their RockStar™ (below) to allow for lightning headphone use while simultaneously charging the iPhone.
But wired headphones may themselves be the next thing to go. At the same keynote where they announced the iPhone 7, Apple unveiled AirPods (below): wireless earbuds that promise high-quality audio while leaving the Lightning jack free for charging (or other purposes, like an SD Card reader).
But what if the iPhone didn’t need to plug in a cable even to recharge its battery?
Apple’s latest gadget du jour, the Watch, doesn’t require a cable to be inserted into a hole to recharge its battery; it uses a magnetic pad placed on the bottom of the watch (shown in this video narrated by Apple designer Jony Ive).
Likewise, Apple’s latest flagship tablet, the iPad Pro, features the “Smart Connector,” a row of three small circles (shown below), through which electricity can travel from the iPad to devices like keyboards; or to the iPad, from devices like the Logi BASE Charging Station. In both cases, the power goes strictly through touch, through the process of “inductive charging.”
Third-party manufacturers have been working toward a future with touch-only charging for years. Mophie’s Juice Pack battery case now comes in a model allowing for wireless charging, through their “Charge Force” line (see their video below to learn more).
I predict that iPhones will eventually have built-in wireless charging technology to take advantage of these options without needing a special case or adapter, just like some Android phones do already.
Eventually, the iPhone may not have any holes for any purpose: not charging, headphones, or anything else. This could bring about a near-hermetically sealed iPhone, with greatly improved water and dust resistance.
I don’t expect the removal of the headphone jack to go over smoothly, and I encourage debate on the subject. I just think that knowing Apple’s history, design philosophy, and ambitions for the future have made this a foregone conclusion. Personally, I’m ready to have one fewer wire to have to untangle.