six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This week's sponsor

Layers - A thoughtful design conference for the Apple community. June 5-7 in San Jose, right alongside WWDC.

By Jason Snell

Searching for a good reason to remove the headphone jack

Is Apple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone? Nobody really knows, though rumors have swirled for quite a while now. A recent exchange between Nilay Patel and John Gruber returned this debate to the foreground last week.

Of course, the truth is that it’s very hard to talk about this rumor in the absence of actual information. Any move like this by Apple would be accompanied with a raft of other information, including Apple’s rationale, any new features enabled by the removal, and of course adapters for existing hardware. In the absence of all that, people are able to fill in the blanks with bogeymen or rainbows depending on their point of view.

I have a point of view on all this, but I’m trying very hard not to get mad about something that hasn’t happened. This is a tech unicorn, an unannounced feature on a nonexistent product, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Still, it’s not a bad intellectual exercise to ponder why Apple might make such a move, and what the ramifications might be.

Let’s just keep in mind that Apple has actually done nothing yet. We don’t know the whole story, or if there’s even a story.

Why does anyone care?

Before digging into the possible reasons for the move, it’s worth mentioning why this is such a hot-button issue in the first place. It’s all about inconvenience. As a standard that’s been around for more than a hundred years, there are a massive number of devices that support the 3.5mm headphone jack. Not just phones and tablets, but computers and amplified speakers and mixers and pretty much any other device in existence that can play audio.

There’s no doubt that if Apple were to remove the headphone jack, there would be some sort of adapter to allow headphones and speakers with headphone plugs to get audio out of an iPhone. But of course, adapters cost money and are easily lost or forgotten and can be bulky and annoying.

We can debate on how big an inconvenience removing the headphone jack would really be. If you’re someone who (like most iPhone users, I’d wager) just uses the Apple-provided EarPods, you will likely not care much at all. (Unless you also like using those on your laptop, because the ones in the box of a new iPhone probably wouldn’t work with any non-iOS device.)

If you’re someone who has a trusty pair of headphones that you really love, or frequently jacks your iPhone into a speaker system somewhere, you’ll be inconvenienced. The third-party headphone market is pretty strong—seems like Apple paid a lot of money for one of the leading manufacturers of fancy, pricey headphones not too long ago, in fact. And those people will be inconvenienced to some degree.

Inconvenience happens. The question is, what’s the trade-off for that inconvenience? What does a new iPhone stand to provide users in exchange for no longer being compatible to the most common plug on the planet? That’s the question. If it’s a good trade, the inconvenience can be worth it.

These reasons aren’t good enough

I’ve heard a lot of reasons why people think Apple will remove the headphone jack, but as I said this week on Upgrade, I’m not sure I’ve heard a single one that makes sense or justifies the inconvenience that would be the result of such a move. Let’s go through them.

Lightning will allow better audio quality. The gating factor in audio quality is not the analog headphone plug—all sound is analog. It’s the quality of your speakers or headphones and the noise in your environment. A tiny fraction of a fraction of all iPhone users could tell the difference between the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and amplifier in the iPhone and a high-end DAC and amp, and most Lightning headphones wouldn’t be using high-end parts anyway. Perhaps most obviously, Lightning headphones are already available today, so eliminating the jack isn’t necessary for us all to migrate to the improved audio quality of Lightning.

Apple wants to make the iPhone waterproof, and the headphone jack gets in the way. It’s possible that the headphone jack makes waterproofing harder, and it’s true that Apple has been making the iPhone increasingly water resistant. But the Samsung Galaxy S7 puts the lie to this argument: it’s got a standard headphone jack and is waterproof.

Apple needs the space inside the phone for something else. This is true, so far as it goes, but Apple’s constantly fighting a battle to make components smaller and add new features to the iPhone. If Apple removes the headphone jack from the iPhone, it might blame that change on some added feature—but the root of that change would be a decision to make the headphone jack expendable. A new camera, a second speaker, more battery, whatever the excuse, Apple has kept the headphone jack up to now despite adding features. Why would this new feature be the one that necessarily eliminates the headphone jack as an option?

Apple’s quest for thinness requires that the headphone jack be sacrificed. That’s funny, the iPod touch is a millimeter thinner than the iPhone 6S and it’s got a headphone jack.

This will prime the pump for a 2017 iPhone with an edge-to-edge display. Assuming for a moment that an edge-to-edge display couldn’t accommodate a headphone jack, why would Apple remove features from this year’s iPhone to accommodate next year’s feature? At least such an iPhone would offer its edge-to-edge screen as a trade-off for the loss of the headphone jack. But with iPhone sales flat and the prospects for a third year with the same overall design language, would Apple want to hamstring the 2016 iPhone even more just to get the complaints out of the way a year early? That doesn’t sound like Apple to me.

Wireless is the future! Bluetooth is great! I own a set of Bluetooth headphones, and they’re fine. Wireless headphones have to be charged, which is a complication wired headphones don’t suffer from. Bluetooth is problematic. It’s complex to pair, connect, and disconnect headphones. And even now, I have weird audio issues with Bluetooth connections both on my headphones and in my car, where the sound drops out or has a strange clicking or ticking noise until I turn my iPhone’s Bluetooth off and on. It just happened to me this morning with my headphones—I turned them on, started playing music, and the sound was just awful until I toggled my iPhone’s Bluetooth and then reconnected the headphones manually.

Is wireless audio the future? Sure! But the present is still not so great.

Eventually the pain of transition will go away. That’s the great thing about transitions—they tend to end. This, too, shall pass. The problem is, the headphone jack doesn’t seem to be going away from any other part of the world. If Apple makes this change, people who have to connect to those other devices will probably not be making a transition—they’ll just be carrying an adapter with them for the foreseeable future.

Or to put it another way, Apple sells a Lightning to VGA adapter and a USB-C to VGA adapter. VGA! Still out there! Can’t be killed! I don’t miss the VGA port on my Mac, but anytime a worldwide connection standard is eliminated without a new standard coming right behind to replace it, you’re left carrying an adapter in your pocket forever.

It’s a very old standard, so it’s time to kill it. What is this, “Logan’s Run”? The age of something isn’t reason enough to kill it. A lot of aging standards are way past their sell-by date, and they deserve to be eliminated or replaced. But others stand the test of time and aren’t replaced because there’s no benefit in replacing them. The headphone jack seems to fall in the latter category.

It’s just another money grab from Apple. Any Lightning-based devices would need to be part of the Made for iPhone (MFI) licensing program, which does make money for Apple. But given that there would undoubtedly be a low-cost Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter, and given the availability of Bluetooth headphones, I doubt that the boost in licensing the Lightning plug would be worth it on its own. Then again, Apple does own a major maker of headphones, and such a move could sell a lot of Beats headphones. But is that potential boost worth the risk of making Apple’s most important product seem a little less compelling?

Trust Apple, it knows what it’s doing. Apple has made a bunch of great decisions over the years, but it’s hardly infallible. Sometimes it makes mistakes. If you’d like to close your eyes and believe, well, that’s your prerogative.

Apple picks the right time to ditch old tech and replace it with new tech. I’m sympathetic to this argument. It’s like the old sports maxim that it’s better that you get rid of an aging player a year too early rather than a year too late. And in the past, Apple has ditched familiar tech aggressively and often been proven right.

But every time Apple ditched old tech, it was because the new tech offered appreciable, tangible benefits to what came before. Floppy drives were already too small and slow; users were buying things like Zip drives and writeable CDs were on the horizon; hot-pluggable, industry standard USB replaced rickety SCSI and Mac-only serial and ADB; the Lightning connector both was more capable than the Dock connector and reversible; USB-C is similarly reversible and also smaller and more capable than old-school USB; Ethernet was increasingly irrelevant on laptops because of fast Wi-Fi.

Is it the right time to ditch the headphone jack? It doesn’t feel like that to me, but it’s arguable. The replacements—Lightning via an adapter or Bluetooth—don’t seem like clearly better options that solve problems in the current technology that’s making consumers restless and uneasy.

Two is greater than one

So far, the best reason I’ve come up with for Apple to remove the headphone jack is this: Removing one jack cuts the number of plugs on the iPhone in half. Apple’s quest for simplification is legendary, and offering devices with an array of jacks of different shapes and sizes and compatibilities has always been an issue. Apple seems to always prefer fewer ports, and of fewer types. The MacBook takes the same approach.

I can’t argue the point that it’s simple. The problem is, some users require complexity—which is why people end up doing things like buying USB-C hubs or docking stations to attach to their MacBooks. Carrying around adapters and hubs adds complexity for the user who needs extra features—but Apple’s philosophy argues that most users don’t need that complexity, so it’s to simplify the core product and let users who want more to add it on later.

I like the trend toward simplification in general, but when taken to extremes it can produce some unfortunate effects. The buttonless iPod Shuffle was a rare Apple product misfire. If you’re recording a podcast on a MacBook via a USB microphone and your battery is running low, you can’t charge without unplugging the microphone. On a future iPhone, you can imagine a scenario where someone wants to listen to audio on their Lightning-based headphones while also charging their phone—only to realize they can’t do them both at once.

The existence of the MacBook shows that Apple believes in this approach, despite the issues it creates. The company that would ship a laptop with a single port for peripherals and power is exactly the company that would remove the headphone jack from a smartphone.

How would it work?

The last week or so I’ve been a participant in a free-flowing Twitter conversation about what Apple would do if it removed the headphone jack from the iPhone. Here’s my best guess:

In the box, Apple would include a pair of Lightning-based EarPods. I’m going to jump on Marco Arment’s speculation here that Apple will modify the Lightning port to optionally supply analog audio out, thereby eliminating the need to build a digital-to-analog converter or amp in those cheap headphones. (This same approach would be used in the $19 Lightning to 3.5mm headphone adapter Apple would sell alongside the new iPhone.)

Separately, for something like $99, Apple might sell a set of wireless EarPods, perhaps called AirPods. A cap on the back of one of the earbuds will pop off, revealing a male Lightning connector. Plugging the AirPods into the iPhone will pair the devices; a minute of charge will provide a few hours of play time. A female-to-female adapter will ship in the box so you can charge the AirPods from any Lightning cable as well. (By the way, this would be a nice product even if the iPhone keeps the headphone jack.)

Will this all really happen? Will Apple remove the headphone jack from iPhones? I have no idea. I’m hoping it won’t, just because I can’t see how the benefits will outweigh the problems such a move will cause. But perhaps Apple has a few tricks up its sleeve. Until we all hear the details of such a move, and Apple’s explanations for it, it’s impossible to judge it. It simply hasn’t happened yet.

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]