On Headphones

How important is the headphone jack on your phone?

Until recently, that was a question many of us had never considered. I mean, why would we? In the 29 years that I’ve been on this planet, I have used many different devices, but no matter what device I was using – be it a portable cassette or CD player, a Game Boy, an iPod, a Windows or Mac computer, or even a smartphone – I knew that any pair of headphones would work on all of them. That era is over. Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 7, which no longer features the humble 3.5mm headphone jack, now forces us all to consider how much we value the perennial audio port.

I’ll be honest, Apple’s decision won’t have much impact on me and my life, at least in the near term. I long ago excised their devices from my personal catalog, opting instead for the world of Android phones, Windows laptops, and Chromebooks. What’s more, I’ve been using “wireless” Bluetooth headphones (like the Jaybird X2) for the better part of two years; so even if I was an Apple user, I wouldn’t need to round file my earbuds when I bought the new iPhone.

Despite all this, I have been thinking a lot about Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack. Are we on the verge of an anti-Apple revolt? Or will the public simply shrug off the inconvenience? Most important: is this going to impact on iPhone sales this holiday season?

In the past, Apple has been very aggressive about removing technology from their devices that they deem outdated or increasingly irrelevant. One popular example is that Apple stopped putting CD/DVD drives in their laptops starting with the MacBook Air in 2008. At the time, it seemed like a crazy decision. I was still living in the college dorms, and as a result, I frequently saw students using their white MacBooks as makeshift TVs. These kid brought books full of DVDs with them to college: hosting movie nights with friends and binge-watching television shows before Netflix made that commonplace. And speaking of Netflix, this was the peak era for their DVD rentals. For a device aimed at the college demographic, it really seemed like Apple had misread the market.

As it turned out, Apple was right about removing the DVD drive; however, they were right basically by accident.

The way I remember it, Apple’s goal was for consumers to invest in digital libraries of movies and TV shows, all purchased through iTunes (naturally). And some people certainly did that, but they were the minority. What actually happened was the advent of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Apple still sells movies and TV episodes on iTunes, but I’d wager the market for that is vanishingly small.

With regard to the current headphone conundrum: I don’t think Apple is wrong to remove the headphone jack, but I believe they’re removing it far too early.

The biggest issue is that Apple themselves haven’t been laying the foundation for this transition. Imagine that Apple had instead revealed the Lightning-based headphones and their wireless “AirPods” during the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus announcement, and even started shipping the Lightning headphones with new iPhones instead of the traditional 3.5mm plug. Additionally, they could have put a Lightning connection in the ultra-slim MacBook (which as of this moment cannot use the new headphones).
Sure, Apple wouldn’t convince everyone right away, but they would at least get people to start buying into the new ecosystem. When the company finally did remove the 3.5mm jack, Apple would have created a base of supporters who already knew and (hopefully) liked the new wired and wireless solutions.

Apple is betting none of this will matter in the end. I’m very interested to see if they’re right.