Courage Or Jumping The Gun?

One of the controversial elements of the iPhone 7 is the lack of an analog headphone jack. Phil Schiller claimed it takes “courage” to omit it in the product announcement (as well as offering arguments that are specious at best). Others have tried to draw parallels to previous Apple products that dropped common features or technologies. Is this truly a case of courage, or is Apple just being foolhardy?

Some Reality

While it is entirely possible that the iPhone 7 will be the first model that does not outsell it’s predecessor in the opening weekend of sales, not having a headphone jack isn’t the beginning of the end of the iPhone. Sure, some sales are likely to be lost. But there are other issues that the iPhone 7 faces, the biggest is that it is yet another an incremental upgrade. Sure, it has better cameras, faster processors and more storage. But everything else is a refinement on the previous model, and not some fundamental leap in technology. This isn’t the same as the jump from iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4, or iPhone 5S to iPhone 6. In most ways, this is about the same as going from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 6S.

Between customers who won’t bother to migrate Android, and the dedicated fanbase the Apple enjoys, a lot of iPhone 7’s will go out the door. I don’t expect it to be a sales disaster. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are short of expectations.

But what about that missing headphone jack? It’s useful to look at headphones and the role of that little 3.5mm connector.

Let’s Talk State Of The Art

Almost every set of headphones sold today uses the 3.5mm (1/8″) connector. It is based on a design that goes back over a century. The connectors are simple, durable and reliable. They were updated in the 1950’s to accommodate stereo audio. We have had waterproof versions (including down to 50m) for nearly 2 decades. They provide the necessary bandwidth to produce excellent sound quality. Sound quality on headphones has more to do with the speakers, and little or nothing to do with the headphone jack.

There are virtually no USB-based headphones that connect with OTG or the Micro-B connector. There are very few Lighting-based headphones. While there are a number of Bluetooth wireless headphones out there, their sales numbers are still low, comparatively speaking, the combination of price and modest battery life likely holding them back.

There are about 280 million cars on the road in Canada and the United States. About 150 million of those feature a 3mm headphone jack as audio input into the stereo. Fewer than 10 million have CarPlay, or a proprietary equivalent, and while the selection of vehicles with CarPlay has increased over time, it is still an option on most cars, and not one that everyone takes. These ratios typically hold in western Europe and Asia.

So the 3.5mm headphone jack is the standard for mobile audio, and is constantly used by billions of people each and every day. It features on every desktop PC that is built, every laptop, every smartphone, every tablet and most portable stereo systems. A 1/4″ adapter expands those headphones to all traditional stereo receivers. Wired headphones are standard in the recording booth, and virtually no one uses wireless headphones in that context. None of this presents the appearance of a technology in decline.

But Apple Killed The Floppy!

People are trying to draw a parallel to Apple dropping the floppy drive, the optical drive and Ethernet on some devices. The problem is that this is a false equivalency. Some claim that, by losing the analog jack, it will force wireless products to get better, and worse, claim that is what happened when Apple dropped other legacy technologies.

The problem is that isn’t factually true. Every time Apple dropped a legacy technology, an equivalent or superior technology already existed, was in relatively common use (or approaching it) and that usage was increasing. The technology that was removed was already in some degree of decline. That is not the case for headphones. But let’s look at the floppy, the first and most notable instance of Apple dropping a legacy technology.

The 3.5″ floppy drive was a standard feature on almost every personal computer in 1998, having become common by the late 1980’s. Remember that the first MS-DOS based PC’s, along with Apple II’s and CPM machines of the late 197o’s and early 1980’s, featured a 5.25″ floppy drive. The Macintosh was the first machine to feature a 3.5″ floppy on a mainstream machine. By 1998, the 3.5″ floppy was about 14 years old and had completely supplanted the 5.25″ floppy. And by 1998 the floppy was already in decline.

USB had started to appear on other machines. Most PC’s were still corporate devices, (it would be another 2-3 years before home PC use overtook corporate use and corporate sales). Almost all those corporate machines were connected to a network, many with shared network drives. Virtually everyone had e-mail, and sending documents via e-mail was very common. Using floppies to move documents around was becoming less common.

Most software at that time was available on CD, and PC software on floppy discs was becoming comparatively rare. Basically, the floppy was already on the way out. Apple gave it a nudge, but it was hardly alone in that regard. Most ultra-portable laptops of that era did not come with a floppy drive (I have a vintage Sony Vaio from that era where the floppy was optional). Apple’s own PowerBook Duo, first released in 1992, did not include a floppy drive as standard.

The Story Repeats Itself

When you look at optical drives and Ethernet, it story is virtually the same: technologies that were as good or better than those that were removed existed and were already in common use (or close to it). When the MacBook Air appeared in 2008, most people already had their music libraries in iTunes, and more and more were buying their music digitally right out of the gate. More and more people were installing software from networks, and not physical media. Virtually all offices and most homes had Wifi networks installed, and they were in regular use.

When Apple dropped the floppy, ethernet and the optical drive, the functional replacements for them were already there, and in usage that was increasing or even commonplace. Even if Apple hadn’t dropped the floppy in 1998, by the 21st century, it likely would have been dead anyways, relegated to the same dustbin that contained the parallel port (remember those?), the 5.25″ floppy, the SCSI port and the dial-up modem.

None of this is the case with headphones. Sure, in 1998 there were billions of floppy disks around, but almost all of them were stuffed in boxes or drawers, and hadn’t seen the light of day in months or years. There were plenty of PC’s whose floppy drive hadn’t seen a disc inserted. In 2008, we still used DVD’s and CD’s, and Ethernet was certainly the preferred way to connect to networks for speed and reliability. But at that time, those technologies were either disappearing or their role was changing. That is not happening with headphones.

But Won’t This Force Wireless Audio To Improve?

Other claims are being made that dropping legacy technologies forced other technologies to improve. I don’t buy it, and history doesn’t support that assertion. USB was going to happen, with or without Apple. USB thumb drives had already started to appear in 1998, and while they were expensive, they were far more convenient than a floppy drive. Shared filesystems and transferring documents via e-mail was already commonplace by 1998.

Getting rid of the floppy was asking the sensible question “why is this still here?”. But it didn’t force USB technologies to improve, because that was going to happen anyways, in the same way that 3.5″ floppies replaced 5.25″ floppies. Apple dropping Ethernet and the optical drive on the MacBook Air didn’t force Wifi to improve or encourage more digital downloads. Again, that was going to happen anyways, with or without the Air. The Air’s legacy was creating truly useful ultraportable laptops. It had little or nothing to do with the decline of optical media or the demotion of wired network connections.

Too Soon

Dropping the audio jack now isn’t like trying to remove the floppy drive in 1998. This is like trying to remove the floppy drive in 1988. The audio jack isn’t “traditional”, in that we still have it because of habit rather than need. It is the standard way for people to listen to music on the go, like the floppy was ubiquitous and commonly used each and every day in 1988.

Dropping the floppy did take some courage, also consider that the Macintosh represented less than 5% of all PC’s sold in the world at the time. This wasn’t exactly a huge risk for Apple, in part because they were in dire straits anyways. Coming out with a new all-in-one PC, with a translucent blue/green case, in world of gray or black modular desktops was a bigger risk than omitting the floppy drive.

I think Apple is jumping the gun on this. Will wired headphones go away? Not entirely, but I can foresee a day where almost all consumers use wireless headphones. It will take some time. Something better than A2DP will be required, along with better batteries and/or some standard way to provide power wirelessly. But we aren’t there yet, and the technologies to make that happen are still a ways off. I’m not sure that dropping the audio jack in the iPhone is going to accelerate that change any more than it already is.

Is this move by Apple courageous? I’m not convinced. It feels more like being foolhardy rather than brave. It almost seems like an attempt to be “Steve-like” in doing something unconventional, but doing it for the sake of doing it. Steve did things for far better reasons that those put forward for the iPhone 7, and they were done at a time when the change was less of a risk than some might believe. I don’t think this will kill iPhone 7 sales, but it certainly won’t help it. Don’t be at all surprised if an iPhone 7S arrives next year with a 3.5mm headphone jack.



One thought on “Courage Or Jumping The Gun?

  1. Pingback: Other Overlooked Omissions? | Thoughts from Geoff Kratz @ FarWest Software

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