Why Apple Trashed the Headphone Jack, and Whether It Was a Good Idea

On September 7th, 2016, we all suffered a great loss. On this day, Apple announced their iPhone 7 would not have a headphone jack, which is one of the most universally used analog audio connectors. The headphone jack was a great utility, and it will be forever missed. And because it’s riddance was announced by Apple, we can almost confirm that it will never be seen again, as its absence will be popularized by the massive corporation. Following their announcement, there was much confusion as to why Apple would do something so seemingly horrendous, alongside the belittlement of Phil Schiller for his whole self-proclaimed “courage” rant. To fully understand their decision, we must first look at what the headphone jack is, and where it came from.

The headphone jack dates back to 1888, following the invention and popularity of the telephone. They were used to speed up the process of telephone switchboards, where workers would use these double-sided audio connection cables to connect one person to another over the phone. It was a very simple concept and, at the time, very efficient. 76 years later in 1964, Sony popularized what we know as the 3.5 mm jack that apparently we hold so dearly to our mobile devices. This technology remained the same until 52 years after that, it suddenly, shockingly disappeared on Apple’s new iPhone 7. For perspective, the headphone jack was invented in the same year as the ballpoint pen and the portable camera.

Here are some things invented after the headphone jack:

  • Zippers
  • Gasoline powered cars
  • Frozen packaged food
  • Velcro
  • Rollerblades (invented nearly 100 years after)

If you are not getting the picture: The headphone jack is ancient.

But just because something is old does not mean it should be tossed away, as the common saying goes, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” So why would Apple get rid of it?

Well, according to Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Apple, “it really comes down to one word: courage. The courage to move on, do something new that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage.” To most people, this was far less than satisfying. It seems as if they are making us buy entirely new sets of headphones or carry around a weird adapter thing that’s so small you lose it just by looking at it so that they can call themselves courageous. Not off to a hot start, Phil.

He quickly follows it up explaining that, “our smartphones are packed with technologies and we all want more. We want bigger and brighter displays, we want larger batteries, we want faster processors, we want stereo speakers, we want taptic engines, we want all of that, 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.” Here is where it gets a bit more honest and reassuring.

In fact, Apple did not do this in vain, the new space acquired by getting rid of the headphone jack allowed them to give way for 5 new innovations:

  1. A new Taptic Engine that is twice as big as that of the iPhone 6s and supports their enclosed home button, giving users the opportunity to customize their home button
  2. A significantly bigger battery that Dan Riccio, Apple’s Senior VP of hardware engineering, said increased the battery of the iPhone 7 by 14%, or nearly 2 hours of battery life
  3. A new stereo speaker system that is louder and more widespread
  4. A barometer that is so accurate Apple claims it can track if you walk up a set of stairs
  5. Dramatically increased water and dust resistance ranked at IP67. Less ports led to a more enclosed phone that can survive depths larger than that of the Samsung Galaxy S7 according to tests by EverythingApplePro

These innovations go far, and the lightning port will work just fine for transmitting audio, and it might even be better. Phil Schiller, during the announcement of the iPhone 7, said, “from the start we designed lightning to be a great digital audio connector.” This is undeniably true as Schiller said in 2012 when they announced the new lightning port that, “[lightning] is adaptive to what those signals need to be for the different accessories you might need to plug into.” This might bring into question, how long has Apple been planning this step forward?

Nevertheless, the iPhone will still sell. According to a study of over 70 million iOS devices by Localytics, in its first weekend, the iPhone 7 took over 1% of the iPhone market, with the 7 Plus at .2%. This is very small deviation from the iPhone 6s’s 1% and 6s Plus’s .3%. Despite this difference, the iPhone 7 was expected to sell 13 million models in its first weekend, way above that of the 6s according to Localytics’ Caitlin O’Connell. Localytics is the only trusted source of Apple’s sales, as the corporation refused to release their sales in the first weekend, most likely to avoid condemnation by the media. However, Apple was able to announce that the response to the iPhone 7 was greater than what they expected, with significant backorders and a large amount of sales online. All in all, no, the loss of the headphone jack will barely, if at all, affect Apple’s sales.

Another contributing factor to the lack of negative feedback to the iPhone 7’s sales is the growing popularity of Bluetooth headphones. According to a study by NPD on July 28th, 2016, Bluetooth headphones had actually surpassed that of analog headphones in June of 2016. Bluetooth headphones accounted for 56% of all headphones sales, with 65% of that being sold by Beats, which is owned by Apple, and LG.

So, was it truly a good idea in the end? Well, we must consider a few different ideas: Apple’s reasoning, what they put in place of the headphone jack, their sales, the growth of Bluetooth, and, finally, will it work?

Apple’s reasoning: Legitimate. Yes, we need to free up some space for all the things that we want. But this is not courageous, investing in Tidal is courageous.

What they put in place: Legitimate. The enclosing of the home button by the Taptic engine makes it sleeker and more water proof. We all love a bigger battery, especially to compensate for a more powerful phone. Speaker system could be useful, and the barometer is pretty impressive.

Their sales: Indifferent. Their sales did dip a little bit, no doubt about that, however it did not dip enough for this to define this as a bad move by Apple.

The growth of Bluetooth: Helpful. The growth of Bluetooth simply buttresses, or softens the blow of, this change. The growth of Bluetooth is dramatic, and it is for the better.

Will it work: Yes, but not for a while. Until Bluetooth becomes more popular in which all consumers are using them, this change will probably not turn a huge profit for Apple. Nevertheless, Apple is forcing their consumers to purchase Bluetooth more regularly, and we should see a large growth in Bluetooth headphones, despite it already being a growing product. The headphone jack does take up a significant portion of phones, and perhaps the new technology in its place will divert consumers’ attention and help Apple make phones better than ever before. Apple may have dropped the headphone jack too soon and this decision may have been rushed so that they would not have to announce it on their 10-year anniversary iPhone coming next fall, but, despite their rush for consumers to modernize, we should still see headphone jacks become less common, and within about 7 years perhaps become obsolete.