iPhone 7 and the death of the headphone jack…

One of the controversies leading up to the release of the iPhone 7 is the rumored end of the headphone jack. This has some people up in arms, and it’s been a kerfuffle the likes we haven’t seen since, oh, Apple decided to delete the floppy drive from the iMac. It’s even bigger than the kerfuffle over Apple’s decision to remove the DVD drive from the laptops! Horrors! Or removable batteries in the laptops and phones. Horrors!

And you can see just how wrong Apple was in both of those decisions…

And that’s kind of my point. I could mention some more, such as, oh, the transition from PowerPC to Intel. Or the transition from ADB to USB. Or SCSI to Firewire. Or… Or…

And each one has a similar set of reactions: initial outrage, a period of time (typically from about 6 months to 18 months) where there are pain points for us as we have to shift to the new technology bits and bobs, and then a realization that the new reality isn’t that bad. Except for the small but noisy group that will never get over it and wants everyone to know that. Although it’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone make that argument over the floppy drive; I expect they all died off of old age…

But.. battery life!

Yes, we can argue battery life endlessly, and yes, it can be a problem, but to me, it’s also a solved problem. If you need it, you can add a battery case to your phone. If you (I’m in this category) need it occasionally, buy a battery block and carry it in your bag or purse — I use this RAVpower and love it, and I hate the idea of adding weight to the phone to increase battery life unless I absolutely have to. People forget this is a physics problem: battery is heavy, and it’s clear Apple believes weight is a key feature (or problem) for the desirability of the device and so it makes the tradeoffs to keep the weight light. I for one am really happy with the result.

And that’s really a forgotten aspect of Apple’s product design: It’s not about giving a product every capability to solve every problem, but to make sure it solves the problems most people have, and allowing for optional solutions for the outliers. Long battery life is an outlier for most iPhone users, so why force them to carry the weight or pay for the components they don’t need? Apple gets that. And for those that do need it, good options exist.

How does Apple justify removing the port?

One of the things I’ve been mulling over is how Apple is going to justify removing the port? Why is the phone better off without it? Jason’s article on this did a great job of covering why this matters and why Apple needs to explain why this change is happening, and I’ve got some thoughts about that…

First, how many users use the port? Think about how usage breaks down:

  • Users using the supplied earbuds
  • Users using bluetooth headsets or speakers
  • Users using the built-in speaker
  • Users using headphones or speakers via the headphone jack

What’s the mix of these? I couldn’t find concrete data, but we can make some intelligent guesses. You see Apple’s earbuds everywhere: a large percentage of users seem to be quite happy with them (I don’t know why, I find them incredibly uncomfortable, but they’re free). This implies that if/when Apple releases the new iPhone they’ll likely release it with earbuds that work without the headphone jack, and that will solve the problem for these people. What percentage of users is this? 30%? 40%?

People who listen via the built-in speakers don’t care.

People who listen via some bluetooth device also don’t care. How many of these are there? Marco Arment on one of his podcasts made a comment that his analytics show that as many as half of the listens going through Overcast are to bluetooth devices (or perhaps bluetooth/speaker; I couldn’t find it to verify).

So I expect a major point from Apple will be that for most of us, the speaker jack is already unnecessary. What percentage is that? My guess is it’s around 70%, but it’s pretty clear that well over half of the audio emitted by an iPhone is already handled without using the jack, or will be with the new Earbuds in the box with the iPhone 7.

But what’s the advantage to do this?

One reason would be improved water resistance. Big steps were made with the iPhone 6s although Apple never formally acknowledged that, and removing this jack would be one more way to make the device water safe.

Another advantage to removing the jack is that the jack is a huge percentage of phone failures: it’s a great way to mess up your phone so you need to replace it. So Apple can talk about reliability, and saving everyone (including Apple) money on reducing failures and replacements when the jack fails or gets junk wedged in it.

Apple can use that space for improving other things, like adding improved speakers to the iPhone like it did for the iPad. I own a nice bluetooth speaker; unless I’m working in the garage, I almost never use it, because these days, I use the speakers in the iPad instead. They’re perfectly good for most of what I do. Improved speakers in the phone would push that further, because then places where I use the speaker for volume as I move around, I simply carry the speakers with me in my pocket.

So that’s how I see Apple justifying this change:

  • Most of you are already not using the jack, and that trend is accelerating.
  • The jack is the biggest cause of failures of the phone after drops, so this will make it more reliable and less likely to fail and need replacement.
  • I’m not sure if Apple will go for full “water safe” language, but at the very least, it’ll make it better in casual water contact situations.
  • And they’ll have some suggestion for how removing it gives them the ability to add something else nice to the phone solving some other problem for you. Better speakers is my guess.

Will that convince you? We can already guess that nothing will convince some people, and we can also know we’re going to hear from them. But I think in reality, for most iPhone users that upgrade this will be either a non-issue, or at worst be a minor hassle for a short time. I think it’s also clear that Apple is not so much forcing this change on users as it is recognizing a trend that’s already happening and at worst accelerating it along.

And in a year, the dust will settle, we’ll all have gotten used to the change, and only a few percentage of the user base will still be complaining about it, just like you can still find a few people upset that they can’t swap batteries on their laptops. Most of us long since realized the advantages of the current design… (although to be honest, I’m really looking forward to moving my laptop to USB C because it’ll mean both a single combined charger for all my gear, and that I can upgrade to a battery block that will charge my phone and my laptop if needed… Yay progress!)

Unintended consequences

Lost in the noise about this debate are some of the unintended consequences of removing the jack — there are accessories and devices that depend on it. The big one is the Square Reader and this could create disruptions for businesses and vendors that depend on it. Is this a reason not to make the change? No, and I expect Square has a compatible replacement in the works, and if it doesn’t by now, it deserves what it’ll get in the backlash.

Were you aware there’s this fun sub-culture of weird accessories that plug into the jack? Check out Etsy and you’ll see all sorts of stuff. Is this a reason not to do it? no, but these vendors will have to adapt somehow.

There are medical devices that use that jack: glucose monitors for diabetics, Oximeters, blood pressure monitors and other devices. All of these devices now have versions that work via bluetooth, or occasionally wifi or the lightning port, so users have options — but it’s still a disruption. These users have to plan for the upgrade, and these vendors need to have new products moving forward, or find themselves operating in an Android-only world.

So yeah, it’s gonna happen.

So yeah, this is going to happen. Like it or not, our future is a bluetooth enabled one.

In practice, for most of the user base, this change has already happened, or with a new pair of free earbuds, will happen seamlessly. From all indications that number is well past half, and it might be as big as three quarters. Of course, when you sell a billion devices 25% is also a huge number — and there are users of specific accessories like the Square Reader for which this might be a bigger headache — but to me it looks pretty clear Apple is following a trend here, not creating one, and that the transition for most of us will be painless or close to it.

And we know from history that this won’t stop the noise and grumbling, and that a year from now, we’ll mostly have moved on, and two years from now, we’ll be surprised that people were making so much noise about something that simply seems normal now. Because that’s how it’s been every time we’ve hit one of these technology inflection points in the past…