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iPhone 7: why Apple just abolished the headphone jack

It’s official: there won’t be a headphone jack in the iPhone 7. Instead, if you want to play music on an iPhone 7, you’ll either have to use wireless Bluetooth headphones or plug new Lightning-based headphones (or an adapter) into the port you use to charge the device.

The downsides are obvious: Almost everyone has headphones, speakers, and other gadgets based on the ubiquitous 3.5 mm headphone jack. Eliminating this connection could render these devices unusable, or at least force everyone to carry around an extra adapter.

But Apple doesn’t care. Ditching the headphone jack is the next step in Apple’s relentless quest to make the iPhone — and all of its products — thinner, simpler, and more reliable. They’re betting that however much you might hate having to buy new headphones, you’re going to love the sleeker look of the new iPhone 7 so much that you’ll buy one anyway.

But Apple also believes that the conventional headphone jack has become a bottleneck to improvements in audio quality and headphone design. At Wednesday’s event, Apple’s Phil Schiller argued that removing the headphone jack was an act of "courage" on Apple’s part. The shift to the Lightning connector will shift audio circuitry from the iPhone into the headphones themselves, creating the opportunity for third parties to experiment with new features and designs.

And history may be on Apple’s side here. Customers invariably react badly to big changes in beloved products. But after a few months of grumbling, they usually accept the change and quickly forget about it.

Apple has introduced disruptive changes to its products over and over again in the last 20 years, and it has been an important factor in the company’s success. They’re betting they can pull the same trick one more time.

Apple has made this move many times before

Macworld New York Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Apple has been removing features from its products and daring customers to complain about it almost since Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

Jobs’s first major product announcement after his return was the iMac. It is best remembered for having a curvy, colorful case at a time when most computers were beige and rectangular. But at the time, the most controversial thing about the iMac was that it removed the floppy drive, which was then a standard part of virtually all Macs and Windows PCs. Apple also removed several ports that had been included in every Mac for a decade, replacing them with a cutting-edge (and now ubiquitous) standard called USB.

Customers howled, as the changes rendered many of their existing peripherals — and data they’d saved on floppy disks —  obsolete. But it worked out fine. Removing the floppy drive from the iMac (and soon other Macs) made them lighter, cheaper, and smaller. Ditching older ports encouraged the development of Mac-compatible USB products like keyboards and printers. Before long there were plenty of them to choose from. The move probably strengthened the platform in the long run.

A decade later, Apple introduced the MacBook Air, a laptop Apple made razor-thin by eliminating the CD-ROM drive and the Ethernet networking port — both industry standards at the time. Once again, customers grumbled but many found its slender profile impossible to resist.

Last year, Apple took this to an even further extreme with the latest MacBook. It has just two ports: a souped-up USB port on one side and a headphone jack on the other. If you want to plug in other devices, like an external monitor or an Ethernet cable, there’s a variety of splitters and adapters that allow that lone USB port to perform many functions simultaneously.

Obviously, no customer is asking Apple to eliminate features from its products. But customers do like it when products are smaller, lighter, and more affordable. Removing little-used ports and drives also leaves more room inside MacBooks for batteries, enabling longer battery life. The healthy growth of Mac sales over the last decade suggests that Apple is on to something.

Ditching the headphone jack could have some real advantages

That same logic applies with even more force to the iPhone. People keep their iPhones in pockets and purses rather than backpacks and briefcases, so size and weight are even more important. Making each iPhone thinner than the last while increasing battery life requires Apple to be ruthless about cutting unnecessary components.

Apple is looking for ways to make the iPhone case more watertight in order to compete with Android vendors that have been touting their own phones’ water resistance:

Fewer holes in the case means fewer ways for water to seep in. The iPhone 7 is also comes with a pressure-sensitive home button, rather than the mechanical one in the iPhone 6, eliminating yet another hole in the iPhone 7 case. The result, Apple says, is that the iPhone 7 is the most water-resistant iPhone yet.

Headphones plugged into a Lightning connector can also produce better sound than ones that are plugged into a headphone jack.

Earlier this summer, our sister site the Verge reviewed an $800 pair of Lightning headphones and raved about their superior sound quality. The basic issue is that the quality of the sound generated by headphones is driven by electronics that convert a digital music file into electric signals that drive the speakers. The iPhone’s headphone jack is driven by electronic circuitry inside the iPhone, and weight, size, and power constraints mean that this circuitry is necessarily mediocre.

Shifting headphones to the digital Lightning port allows most of this circuitry to move into the headphones themselves. That gives headphone designers more freedom to use high-quality audio chips that might be larger, more expensive, and consume more power. Users who care about audio quality can pay a bit more for a higher-quality sound.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect the Lightning earbuds Apple bundles with the iPhone to sound as good as $800 headphones. And in practice, your average iPhone user might not be enough of an audiophile to tell the difference. But Apple portrays the end of the headphone jack as a bold step into a new future of superior audio quality.

Moving the audio circuitry into the headphones could allow other kinds of innovations too. For example, some high-end headphones have noise-cancelling capabilities; they often have built-in batteries to power the noise-cancelling circuitry. But because the Lightning connector can supply more power to headphones, noise-cancelling Lightning headphones can operate without a separate battery, potentially making them smaller, cheaper, and lighter. In the long run, noise-cancelling capabilities could become a standard feature of mid-range iPhone headphones.

Of course, you might object that iPhones already had Lightning connectors. Third parties are already free to make Lightning-based headphones — several already do — and customers are free to buy them. But as with the iMac two decades ago, taking away options can be a crucial spur to creativity. In a stroke, Apple is massively increasing the demand for Lightning-based headphones, which means that other companies will spend a lot more developing products to meet that demand.

The switch won’t be as bad as you think

Apple’s announcement leaves you with three options if you want to connect headphones to your iPhone 7:

  • You can buy a Lightning-to-headphone-jack adapter (Apple will offer one, and eventually third parties will too) allowing you to plug an old-fashioned pair of headphones — or any other audio device that uses the standard headphone jack — into your iPhone 7. The obvious downside here is that you have to carry around an extra adapter.
  • You can use wireless headphones based on the Bluetooth standard. This standard is supported by all recent iPhones so products already on the market should work with the iPhone 7. The big downside here is that wireless headphones have batteries that need to be recharged. Recharging headphones is an extra hassle, and the greater complexity of Bluetooth headphones also mean they tend to cost more, which is bad news for people with a habit of losing them.
  • You can use wired headphones based on the Lightning standard. Apple will bundle a pair of these with the iPhone 7, and there are a few other options on the market already. But, as I’ve already mentioned, they’re pricey, with earbuds starting around $50 and larger headphones costing much more. Expect the options here to improve over the next year as third parties cash in on the bonanza of iPhone 7 users looking for Lightning-based headphones.

Right now, the pickings for all three of these options are fairly slim, because most people are still buying old-fashioned analog headphones. But that’s going to change fairly quickly.

That’s because Apple can force its entire customer base to switch to a new standard at once. That means that over the next year, tens of millions of people are going to buy an iPhone 7. All at once, they’re going to start shopping for new accessories designed to work with an iPhone 7. Dozens of companies are going to be rushing to create headphones, speakers, converters, and other accessories designed to work in a post-headphone-jack world.

This process will be messy at first. It’ll take a few months for third-party products to start hitting store shelves, and it’ll take a few more months after that to work out all the kinks. But by this time next year, there’s going to be a bustling ecosystem of iPhone 7-compatible products.

This is one of Apple’s key advantages compared to its Android rivals. When Apple announces a new standard, third-party companies know that millions of customers are virtually guaranteed to sign up, which gives the switch a sense of momentum and even inevitability. In contrast, when a company like Samsung or HTC announces a phone with a new feature, it’s possible customers will simply refuse to buy it since there are lots of other Android phones on the market.

The danger: fragmentation of the headphone market

Martellus Bennett/ Hey AJ Imagination Lounge Pop Up Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images for Martellus Bennett- Imagination Agency Pop Up Book Launch

Still, Apple is asking a lot of customers here. This isn’t like the iMac in 1998, when Apple phased out some proprietary Apple ports in favor of an emerging standard, USB. Here, Apple is trying to kill a venerable open standard in terms of a proprietary standard that only Apple uses.

Other companies are unlikely to follow Apple’s lead. Even if they decide to deprecate the headphone jack, they’re especially unlikely to adopt Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector. And this means that any household that owns a mix of Apple and non-Apple audio devices will have to maintain two distinct sets of audio equipment — or a bunch of converters.

That could lead to more friction and even backlash from customers than you see from a normal Apple design change. If customers wind up mostly buying adapters, and Apple starts losing sales because customers are frustrated about this situation, the company might be forced to back down and offer an audio jack once again.

Even if Apple manages to convince its own customers to make the switch, the loss of a venerable standard could still be a sad development. Hopefully in the long run, Apple and Android device makers will be able to converge on a new, open, digital standard (most likely a version of USB) to become the universal connector for smartphones. But expect quite a lot of customer frustration and confusion in the meantime.

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