No Headphone Jack

September 12, 2016

The other day Apple announced their iPhone 7. The media-frenzy feature of this new device is its lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack (technically it’s a TRRS connector), an interface near ubiquitous to smartphones. Lenovo and Motorola recently launched phones without headphone jacks, but otherwise few smartphones lack one as of today. It’s an interface considered integral to what a smartphone is.

When I got my first iPhone, the initial value proposition was its bundling of these core features and technologies, in order from most to least important at the time:

Then after I had picked it up, I came to use it as an alarm clock and note-taking device as well.

As noted above, the MP3 player component was a big reason of why I got my original iPhone. That headphone jack was essential to its value proposition. And today I still use my current iPhone as my MP3 player.

But people are upset, especially in the media (when isn’t the media upset about something). Apple took away a commonly used port essential to a major smartphone use-case. Apple’s not like Lenovo or Motorola. Apple releases yearly phones, not monthly phones. People actually use iPhones, sometimes for quite a while, like myself, and Apple’s competitors take cues from it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says the lack of a headphone jack means Apple will have the ability to institute digital-rights management for its audio, much like consumer video devices with HDMI HDCP. But Apple already has the ability to do that through software if it wants.

Others are mad that Apple will now require them to buy new Lightning-port headphones or a nine dollar Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter if they wish to use their current wired headphones with an iPhone 7.

Both of the above fears are quickly placated when you realize Apple includes that Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box with the phone, as well as Lightning earbuds, but Apple’s earbuds have personally never felt comfortable in my ears. The EFF’s fears are placated because, much like HDMI adapters that strip HDCP DRM, the Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter will also strip any potentially instituted audio DRM.

Other people are misinformed, thinking the iPhone 7 requires them to buy Apple’s new and proprietary $160 wireless headphones to listen to music. Nope. That’s optional, like the wireless headset that was sold alongside the first iPhone. And the new headphones use Bluetooth, like most all other wireless headphones, meaning they can be paired with any other Bluetooth receiver, or you can use any other Bluetooth headphones you may have. The only aspects that are proprietary are the internal signal processing chip and the deeper integration with Apple’s operating systems, excluding any intellectual property involved.

And that’s fine, that deeper integration. That’s what all companies should strive to do: Build good products that easily integrate with their ecosystem. That’s what was so laughable to me about those Microsoft Windows anti-trust legal cases a few years ago, the ones over Microsoft including a web browser and music player with their operating system: Why should Microsoft make a less-useful product? That’s stupid.

Anyway, back to the iPhone 7’s headphone jack, or lack thereof. Further people are complaining that this change means that they, or anyone else, cannot now use their studio headphones without an adapter. I don’t know what kind of studio headphones they use, but they’re not studio headphones if they don’t already require the use of an adapter to use with an iPhone. I’ve never used a studio headphone that didn’t have a 6.35mm (“quarter inch”) studio plug. Studios are standardized around 6.35mm (and XLR), not the functionally identical 3.5mm miniaturization common elsewhere.

Personally I don’t mind the change much. I would prefer there still be a headphone jack, but I don’t mind there not being one. But I’m not one of those people whose only home computer and connection to their Internet is their phone. I’ll care more if this change comes to iPads or Macs, product lines that can afford to be less economical with internal space by nature of their larger form-factors. iPads and MacBooks are, essentially, screens with batteries — the chips that bring them to life are such minor components by volume, comparatively.

The earbuds I use with my iPhone can just keep the Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter on at all times. Using the adapter also means I won’t have to take my phone’s case off if I do actually want to use my studio headphones with my phone, which I currently need to do because my 6.35mm-to-3.5mm adapter and phone case were designed by different companies that didn’t design their products with the other in mind. Lightning-to-3.5mm-to-6.35mm will allow me to keep my case on.

But I’ll probably be waiting for the iPhone 8 or 9. I don’t use my phone to play games so the only upgrade envy I feel each year is over each model’s progressively better camera (and when the iPhone 4 came out, the screen).

Hopefully this change will push Bluetooth technology forward, much like Apple’s original iMac is credited with pushing USB forward, as the iMac lacked serial ports and a built-in floppy drive. I don’t consider headphone jacks legacy, though. Bluetooth can just be a pain, so more people using hopefully means less future pain.

Personally I don’t see myself purchasing Apple or anyone else’s wireless headphones. A lack of wires means a need for charging, and I’m not comfortable with the trade off yet. Maybe in five-to-ten years when wireless-headphone battery life is better, inductive charging is more common, and I can just put all my electronics on the same inductive-charging shelf each night.