One of the big questions leading up to Apple’s media event last week was whether or not the company could successfully sell the public on its decision to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Ahead of the event, the speculation about Apple’s motives were all over the map: some believed that Apple would only remove the headphone jack if it had a superior alternative while others posited that Apple was merely paving the way for a world without wires.
Either way, the burden was decidedly on Apple to convince users that they wouldn’t miss the headphone jack. And now that we’re a few days removed from the event, we can calmly ask: did Apple adequately justify its decision to remove the headphone jack?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is resounding no.
During the iPhone 7 unveiling, Apple executive Phil Schiller said that Apple chose to remove the jack because of — brace yourselves — “courage.”
“It comes down to one word,” Schiller said. “Courage. “The courage to move on and do something better for all of us.”
Schiller, however, didn’t sufficiently explain what that “something better” was.
Funny thing is, when Apple removed previously beloved technologies, whether it be FireWire or the optical disc drive, it could come up with any number of technical, business, or practical explanations to justify what were at the time frustrating transitions. During last week’s media event, however, all we heard from Schiller was a bunch of buzzwords.
The full transcript of Schiller’s half-hearted attempt to justify the design decision reads as follows:
First, we’ve shown that we can use lightning for our in-box headphones and to adapt all of our older devices through analog interfaces. And it is a great connector for doing that.
But second, and this is really important. Our smartphones are packed with technologies and we all want more. We want bigger brighter displays, larger batteries, stereo speakers, faster processors, we want taptic engines and it’s all fighting for space within that same enclosure. And maintaining an ancient single-purpose, analog big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.
And third, and I think this is most important of all, when you have a vision of what the audio experience can be, you want to get there as fast you can and and make it as great as it can be. And we do have a vision for how audio should work on mobile devices.
For many, Apple’s design decision with the iPhone 7 is alarming because it effectively abandons a universal, simple, reliable and durable technology for an entirely proprietary alternative. If you’re a headphone manufacturer who wants to make Lightning-based headphones, you’ll have to pay Apple for the privilege. If you own a pair of Lightning-based headphones, the only device in the world that can make use of them is the iPhone 7, unless, of course, you want to carry around an adapter with you everywhere you go.
This marks a huge shift in how Apple expects its users to listen to audio and Apple did a horrible job of justifying the rationale behind said shift. In this respect, Apple’s removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack is not at all comparable to previous instances of Apple abandoning legacy technologies.
As Chris Taylor of Mashable astutely observed: “This is in no way the equivalent of losing the CD drive or the 30-pin connector. There is no technological excuse for this. Music does not sound better over a Lightning cable. Nor does it sound better over Bluetooth, or the proprietary wireless technology Apple is using in its AirPods. There’s simply more audio information traveling over a wire than can travel over the air. Say it with me now: wired almost always sounds better than wireless.”
Rob Pegoraro of Yahoo, meanwhile, opined that “Apple killed a technology that’s worked fine for decades and left you with solutions that are costlier or more complex and work no better at the core function of delivering sound to your ears.”
Apple tried to provide a more cogent justification behind the 3.5mm jack removal in a Buzzfeed interview but even that fell a little flat.
“It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life,” Apple executive Dan Riccio said. “And frankly, when there’s a better, modern solution available, it’s crazy to keep it around.”
That’s the thing, where’s the better, more modern solution Apple keeps talking about? It’s not Lightning. It’s not Bluetooth. It’s not AirPods.
If Apple really wanted to sell us on the iPhone 7 design, it should have come out and said boldly and loudly all of the things that the headphone jack removal made possible. Schiller briefly referenced a few examples in the aforementioned Buzzfeed article, but Apple should have been more forthcoming during the actual keynote instead of forcing prospective iPhone 7 owners to scratch their collective heads and wonder endlessly about the design.
According to Apple, removing the 3.5mm headphone jack allowed Apple to meet the IP7 water resistance threshold, put in a 14% bigger battery on the 4.7-inch model and incorporate more advanced camera technology.
Those are convincing points to make and it’s a shame that Apple completely neglected to make them explicitly during the keynote presentation.
Looking ahead, it will be fascinating to see if consumers find the iPhone 7 design to be something of a headache or if, in a few years time, we’ll all look back at this moment and wonder how we allowed the 3.5mm jack to stay around for as long as it did. Regardless, Apple could have done a much better job of easing us into what will undoubtedly be a frustrating transition for many.
As a final aside, you may have noticed that Schiller’s use of the word “courage” was deemed by many to be tone-deaf and resulted in no shortage of online mockery. Interestingly, though, Steve Jobs own comments regrading “courage” as a business philosophy sheds a little bit of light on why Schiller likely used that particular word.