Apple has never been afraid to declare that technology has moved on, and that something we all thought of as essential is now legacy equipment. It did this first with the 3.5mm floppy drive, omitting it from the iMac G3 in 1998 because Steve Jobs held the view that the CD-ROM had rendered the medium obsolete.
Apple was also one of the first companies to abandon optical drives, with the MacBook Air being the first Mac to launch without one in 2008. The company of course later dropped optical drives from the Retina MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac.
Finally, in launching the 12-inch MacBook, Apple also declared that every prior port except the headphone socket was no longer necessary.
Each time Apple has done this, there have been anguished complaints and negative press. Apple has weathered the storm each time, and other manufacturers tended to quietly follow Apple’s lead a little later. But in seemingly planning to abandon the oldest and best-established standard of them all – the venerable 3.5mm headphone jack – I believe Apple is being a little more careful in how it has prepared the ground …
Tech people often have quite mixed reactions to the dropping of old standards. On the one hand, we understand that technology moves on, and there comes a time when old tech needs to fall by the wayside. We also love shiny new tech.
But, at the same time, it’s the techies who have most invested in our kit. We’re the ones with external drives and scanners and USB speakers and high-end cameras and multiple iPhone docks and … Well, you name it, we have it. So we have the most to lose when Apple drops support for an existing port. We may not be in the majority, but we have loud voices.
And this time around, Apple will be upsetting another segment of the market: those who love music enough to have invested in premium headphones. It would be particularly troubling for Apple to alienate that group, because Apple made its modern-day name in music through its first truly mass-market product: the iPod. The first iPhone was also very much sold on that music heritage.
So Apple needs to tread carefully here, and I believe it has – in two ways.
First, with information-management.
Rumors that Apple was dropping the headphone socket from the iPhone 7 have been circulating a very long time. We first heard a report, from a credible source, way back in November 2015 – a full ten months before the launch of the phone. Indeed, I wrote an opinion piece predicting Lightning EarPods the following month.
That predates most other substantive rumors about the device. It wasn’t until this year that we heard credible reports of other aspects of the new iPhone. First substantive reports of the design being similar to the iPhone 6/6s, for example, began circulating in March and April of this year.
All of which makes me strongly suspect that Apple planned all along to deliberately leak the fact that it would be dropping the 3.5mm socket – even if Makotakara discovered it first. It did so, I believe, because it knew that there would be outrage from some quarters, most notably those who own expensive wired headphones which they like to use with the iPhones as well as other kit.
Leaking the news such a long way in advance would ensure that people had time to prepare, both emotionally and practically.
Think of it this way. If Apple had managed to keep it secret until a short time before the launch, all the complaints would have been concentrated into a relatively short time leading up to the official announcement. That would have represented a lot of noise, and a fair amount of negative PR, just at a time when it would do most damage.
By leaking the fact way in advance, the same amount of complaining has been spread out over a much longer period. Effectively, what could have been an anguished cry has been diluted into low background grumbling over the course of almost a year.
By the time Tim Cook walks on stage to show us the iPhone, the fact that it has no headphone socket will be old news. The reports will be ‘as expected’ and ‘as we all knew’ … No anguished howls. No screams of protest.
The long lead-in has also given people time to prepare practically. Those who have bought new headphones this year will have done so in the knowledge that they might want to avoid wired ones with 3.5mm jacks, looking instead at Lightning or wireless headphones.
Those with existing wired headphones have also had time to consider their options. Will they keep their headphones and settle for a 3.5mm-to-Lightning dongle? Or will they bite the bullet and invest in new Lightning or wireless headphones?
The first Lightning headphones appeared on the market around a year ago, and right now there’s a wide range to choose from at all price points. If you prefer to go wireless, there’s even more choice – and even those with relatively expensive tastes in headphones now have options.
Apple’s second piece of preparation is in what it will include in the box with the iPhone.
I’ve long thought it kind of strange that Apple has continued to give away free EarPods with every iPhone. That made sense back in the early days of the iPod, when Apple was trying to sell people on the idea of a new generation of portable audio. It also made sense with the first iPhone, when combining a phone and iPod would have made mobile listening appeal to a wider demographic.
But these days, everyone owns earphones or headphones. Well, everyone who wants to listen to music on the move, anyway. It seemed to me odd that Apple would continue to give away something almost everyone already owns. The only reasoning I could come up with was that the free EarPods are such low quality that it’s probably best to replace them annually before they break.
But this time around, Apple has to include free EarPods because almost nobody owns Lightning headphones and only a tiny minority own wireless ones.
There have been suggestions in some quarters that Apple will opt to bundle wireless AirPods. It’s not impossible – cheap ones are available for under $20 retail, and buying in bulk Apple could get the cost down much lower. But cheap wireless headphones are horrible. That’s not the audio experience Apple will want people to have with their shiny new iPhone. I’m sure it will make AirPods, but these will be a Bragi-like expensive accessory.
So my money is very firmly on Apple including Lightning EarPods. They won’t be great quality, any more than the existing 3.5mm ones are, but they will be good enough that mass-market consumers will be happy. The same consumers who happily use the 3.5mm version today.
But Apple also needs to do something to appease those who own expensive wired headphones with 3.5mm jacks. Some consider a pair of really high-quality headphones to be a lifetime investment, and many of us pay enough that we expect to use the same ones for 5-10 years or more. Sure, we’ve had some notice, but if we’ve paid a significant chunk of change for headphones we love, we’re still not going to want to replace them.
There’s a second factor here too. Many of us use the same headphones with both Macs and iPhones. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it a pain to switch Bluetooth pairing between two different devices, both of which are in range, and of course Lightning isn’t (yet, at least) an option with a Mac.
For both reasons, the report we first heard in July – and which has been echoed many times since – is likely correct. Apple will include a 3.5mm-to-Lightning dongle in the box despite the obvious drawbacks: that it’s a messy solution, and a tacit admission by Apple that the world isn’t quite ready for the socket to be removed.
In summary, then, if I’m correct on both points, Apple has achieved three things. First, it’s prevented people being really upset at buying expensive wired headphones this year, then finding they can’t use them with their shiny new iPhone, by giving them enough warning.
Second, for those of us with existing 3.5mm-based headphones, it has provided enough time to consider our options, and provided a (clunky) solution to get us up-and-running should we decide we want to keep them. It will still get grumbles, but probably not anguished howls.
Finally, of course, it has created a market for what I’m sure will be some rather expensive official Apple AirPods …