Why Drop The Headphone Jack?

The current buzz in the industry is about the 3.5mm headphone going away on the rumoured iPhone 7. Motorola already dropped it on the Moto Z, and noise is being made that others, not just Apple, may follow suit. Arguments are being made in favour and against the move. Some of the arguments, either way, are either wrong or silly.


I’ll admit it: I’m on the fence about keeping or removing the headphone jack. I understand some of the motivations: more room for battery; sealing up a hole against moisture, etc; possibly allowing devices to be thinner. But I like the idea that I can just pick up any headphones and they’ll “just work” without things like adapters, dongles or pairing. I’m liking my new wireless Beats in the office, but I know they’ll spend more time wired than wireless when on the road (because the dropouts would be maddening during a movie, and you can’t run wireless in an airplane).

A Tempest In A Teacup?

Plenty of commenters state boldly “I’ll never buy a phone without a 3.5mm jack”. Right. Just like those that drew lines in the sand over the floppy, CD, VGA port, ADB connectors, removable batteries and other stuff that has come and gone. Sorry, but people will still buy this stuff, even if it means shelling out $19.99 for a goofy looking adapter, because people continue to buy stuff. And the “last one standing” won’t be saved because of it. People were pretty adamant (and equally vocal) that a smartphone needed a physical keyboard, but it didn’t save Blackberry.

However, this is a big change, bigger than dropping floppies or CDs ever were. Why? Because unlike the floppy, ZIP drive or CD, the 3.5mm jack could be seen as akin to the 3-prong power outlet in North America, or the Edison socket for light bulbs. It’s basic technology that has been around since the 1950’s. It works, it works well, and the alternatives aren’t orders of magnitude better.

Besides, the floppy that was dropped wasn’t the first floppy made. People got all upset when IBM-compatibles switched from 5.25″ floppies to the 3.5″ units. And the 8″ floppy preceded the 5.25″ All of these technologies were destined to be replaced by something else. The 3.5mm headphone jack does not fall into that category.

And for all those foaming at the mouth at Apple: they haven’t done it yet. So far, Motorola is the only one who has. The authors of the various “analysis” pieces should maybe keep that fact in mind.

It Isn’t About DRM, Maybe About Money

Some accuse Apple about this rumoured change being about wanting to enforce DRM. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Why? Because Apple was one of the first to remove DRM from virtually all the music they sold. Pretty much every song you buy from iTunes has no DRM on it. Some stuff still carries it, but lots of it is missing. Sure, Apple and others still have it on movies and TV shows (but then, so do DVD’s and Blu-rays). DRM for downloaded music died (but still exists with streaming). In time, it will likely go away on downloaded video as well.

However, it may partly be about more revenue from selling adapters and dongles. Sure, initially any phone or tablet without a jack will come with an adapter in the box (which costs far more than the jack and the cost to seal it against the environment). But expect that to disappear in a year or two, in subsequent releases. Even if some kind of standard is developed and adopted widely, guys like Apple, Samsung, etc will sell adapters with decent margin because they will be able to. But the added revenue from that will almost be statistical noise. It won’t add more than 1% to their bottom line (if that), since it’s the phones and tablets that dominate the revenue and profitability.

Size and Capacity?

Removing the headphone jack adds a trivial amount of volume for battery, adding perhaps a few minutes to battery life. Sure, every extra minute helps, but since the internals of most portable devices are primarily battery and screen, the little extra volume added isn’t that big a deal.

What about it being another hole to protect against the elements? I don’t buy that either. The extra $0.05 or so in cost to protect it on a device that sells for hundreds of dollars won’t matter. You could pass that on to the buyer and they wouldn’t even notice. Besides, there are already a number of holes (speakers, microphones, USB/Lightning, various switches. I count at least 10 on my iPhone). Mobile devices are a veritable piece of swiss cheese when it comes down to it. Removing one of them isn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be.

Now, removing the both headphone jack and USB/Lightning connector open up possibilities for thinner devices. But removing one and not the other won’t matter. It isn’t about making the device thinner. The other connector still requires space, and unless we see real standards for induction charging, and we get better wireless data connections between phones and their desktop/laptop counterparts, the USB/Lightning connector isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Will It Happen? Will It Matter?

A long-time Apple mantra has been “it just works”. The headphone jack “just works”. Dongles, Bluetooth: well, they “usually work”. But they aren’t nearly as convenient, and aren’t nearly as simple as picking up any pair of headphones made in the past 70 years with a 3.5mm jack and plugging them in.

But a big round hole can be seen as compromising the design, and if it isn’t used all that often by most people, why keep it around? People may talk a good game about the headphone jack, but how many really use it? How many would be truly inconvenienced by needing an adapter? Some people claim to want manual transmissions in cars, but then never actually buy them. There are plenty of people who say “it has to have…” but then never buy the product with it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple dumps the headphone jack. I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep it, either. Removing it isn’t a slam dunk, and keeping it isn’t a big deal. I guess we’ll see how this plays out in the coming months.