As expected, the most talked-about feature of the iPhone 7 was the one Apple removed: the 3.5mm headphone socket. The company did, though, come to the party prepared. It most likely planned to leak the move a long time in advance, to give people time to get used to the idea and to inform headphone purchasing decisions.
It supplied Lightning EarPods in the box, so the vast majority of iPhone owners who never use anything else could simply shrug and get on with it. It also included a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter so that those with existing wired headphones weren’t left out in the cold.
It marshalled its arguments, both during the keynote and in subsequent interviews: that it needed the space for a larger battery, taptic feedback engine and second speaker. It even used the word ‘courage’ to echo Steve Jobs talking about risking unpopularity when abandoning a standard.
Finally, it pushed wireless as the future for headphones, launching its own AirPods and creating a W1 chip for fast and seamless pairing across Apple devices. We’ve already seen these in a pair of Beats headphones, though sadly they are unlikely to be licensed to other manufacturers.
The fallout from the decision, then, so far seems to be limited. Will Apple be encouraged by this to make the same decision with MacBooks? It’s already testing the waters. If so, how and when will MacBooks also lose the 3.5mm headphone socket … ?
Apple can’t make the same argument for MacBooks that it did for the iPhone 7: that the headphone socket takes up too much room. MacBooks may be getting slimmer and tighter on space, but they are still offer enough room for a 3.5mm socket.
It would instead have to rely on its secondary argument – that times change and technology moves on. It’s already doing this with USB-C. And one of the many things USB-C can do is, yep, act as a digital headphone socket.
But that’s very messy. Unless Apple adds a Lightning socket to MacBooks specifically for headphone use – which seems incredibly unlikely at a time when the company is busy removing ports – it would be proposing different connectors for different iDevices. Lightning for iPhone and (possibly next time around) iPad, USB-C for Mac.
What would it do in terms of adapters? Offer a Lightning-to-USB-C adapter in the box for those iPhone 7 owners with Lightning EarPods, and a separate 3.5mm-to-USB-C one for those with traditional wired headphones?
What of those of us who use the same headphones with both iPhones and Macs? Are we going to be expected to carry two different adapters around, unplugging one and plugging in the other as we switch devices? How un-Apple-like could you possibly get?
So there can be only one possible answer to the ‘how,’ I think: arguing that we should all be using wireless headphones. No adapters, no worries about conflicting standards.
The W1 chip makes this argument particularly easy to make. Switching between devices with existing Bluetooth headphones is still slightly fiddly, but the W1 chip changes all that. Pair with just one of your Apple devices and have that pairing propagate to all the others via iCloud, and you get headphones which switch seamlessly between devices on demand. That’s actually easier than unplugging a wire from one device and plugging it into another.
And I think the ‘how’ also answers the ‘when.’ Even Apple knows that there are limits to how quickly you can push technological change, and there are still way too many people using wired headphones to demand that we all make the shift to wireless this year. So this year’s MacBooks will, I’m sure, still have 3.5mm headphone sockets.
But a lot can change in a year. The very fact that the iPhone 7 lacks a headphone socket will dramatically boost uptake of wireless headphones among Apple owners.
And Apple wasn’t the first smartphone manufacturer to drop the headphone socket on smartphones (and it may have actually made it popular!) – 9to5Mac’s Zac Hall still has an HTC Touch from way back in 2007, which required a 3.5mm-to-mini-USB adapter. More recently, there’s Lenovo with its Moto Z/Z Force and LeEco with the LeMax 2.
But it’s Apple doing it that sets the standard, so we can expect most remaining manufacturers to follow suit over the course of the next year or so. It’s already rumored that Samsung is doing so with the Galaxy S8.
So a year from now, there will be a lot of people using wireless headphones. It’s been the case for some time that wireless headphones are outselling wired ones, and a year allows time for owners of existing wired headphones to either make the switch or buy the numerous portable 3.5mm-to-Bluetooth adapters I’m sure are on the way. A year from now, wireless is going to be the norm.
The most likely outcome, then, would be Apple dropping the headphone socket from MacBooks in 2017 – and it’s an absolute certainty in my opinion that it’ll be gone by 2018.
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