Tech Talk: Ditching the headphone jack
Look. I didn't want to get into this. I feel like we probably have better things to talk about.
But the furor continues over reports that Apple is doing away with its standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, a piece of technology that has existed in a recognizable version of its current form since the late 19th century.
That we still use it is honestly a rare example of an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality that is somewhat unusual in an industry that enjoys changing its products at a pace that leaves consumers dizzy.
The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to be upset about the rumors. We went through a wave of garment-rending and chest-beating when these reports last surfaced in January; we're going through a wave again now. This is like the kerfuffle over Apple changing its charging cable from the old 30-pin standard to its Lightning cord — except multiplied by 1,000, since the headphone port is an industry standard and not just something Apple uses.
Plenty of negatives
The "con" arguments are plentiful. For one, it probably means you have to go and buy new stuff — either new headphones or a new attachment to modify your old headphones — which is never a happy thought for folks already buying a $550 phone. If Apple does this and doesn't include a set of Lightning-enabled headphones with every phone, it will look like a particularly soulless money grab.
Secondly, it tightens Apple's control on the accessory market, and possibly over digital music as well. Nilay Patel at the Verge makes the argument that these headphones would make digital music the industry norm, and that doing that tacitly supports DRM -- a.k.a. digital rights management, a.k.a. the thing that keeps you from being able to freely move media files between devices. Get rid of the analog headphone jack, he argues, and you lose the motivation to support anything analog. Daring Fireball's John Gruber isn't so sure about that argument, but does point out in his rebuttal to Patel that anyone making Lightning headphones will require certification from Apple.
Beats, one imagines, would be among the brands to support the new standard.
No matter what, that's more control for Apple, which can be a bad thing for consumers -- moving from an open standard to a closed one often leads to confusion and higher costs for consumers.
Finally, if Apple doesn't add a second Lightning port to the phone — an addition that seems unlikely if Apple wants to make more room inside the phone — it will also mean that you can't charge your phone and have your headphones plugged in at the same time. Even the one-port MacBook, which has its own power port pull double duty, lets you do that.
And what of the "pro" arguments? They are few, but arguably pretty strong. One is that the sound quality can be better over a Lightning port — certainly the argument made by the few manufacturers that make these headphones now — which may be a welcome change for people who mourn the lossiness of today's music.
It's also supposed to make the iPhone thinner, or alternately create more room in the iPhone for something like a bigger battery. Thinner is probably not what people are clamoring for out of the iPhone right now, but a boost in battery life would be appreciated.
As trade-offs go, that's probably a pretty good one. Particularly if it can stop you from needing the official Apple charging case with its weird fanny pack-like bump.
The truth is, yes, if this change happens, it's probably not the greatest for consumers. It certainly is not "user-friendly." Apple has an okay track record of weathering legacy technologies -- disk drives, CD drives, that old 30-pin charger.
And perhaps the realer truth is that Apple's going to do what Apple's going to do. Perhaps these reports are a test balloon to see what reaction would be like. Yet even with this controversy, if the pros for Apple outweigh the cons for Apple, chances are we're going to see a change.
Sometimes companies are on your side, sometimes they're not. But they are always on their own side.
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