Jim Cloudman

Apple Laughs at Your Usability Concerns

June 23, 2016 Permalink

I've been perturbed and entertained by the ongoing anti-headphone-jack debate raging in the tech news lately. A quick summary:

If that weren't enough, I have a couple more points for you.

For one (and Andrew mentioned this as well), headphones using Lightning have access to much more than just two channels of audio; they can draw digital data and power too. It's not hard to imagine headphones with integrated sound cards and/or amplifiers drawing power from the phone, nor is it hard to imagine features like surround sound or noise cancellation (without the headset needing its own batteries).

Now, remember that Apple owns Beats as well. Imagine, if you will, Apple announcing that the headphone jack is going away, followed immediately by the introduction of a new range of headphones with new, innovative features competitors can't match without also using the Lightning port. Depending on the features, this may make stereo, analog headphones seem old and outdated to the average user - and this would work to Apple's benefit, perhaps enough so that they'd toss out the analog port to get adoption rates up.

The second point is that Apple has a storied history of making changes that are user-hostile, often for reasons rooted solely in aesthetics. Take the buttonless iPod shuffle, which forced users to control their iPods with voice commands just because it made the iPod itself look pretty. Or to a lesser extent the 6th generation iPod Nano, which at least had a touch screen. Or the latest MacBook, with one port on it because two would make too much sense, and an inferior keyboard caused by saving an extra millimeter or two of thickness that no sane person would have noticed. (But hey, it still has an analog headphone port!)

Taken in that context, the fact that there's actual technical justification for ditching the headphone port aside from "it looks prettier this way" makes me wonder why Apple hasn't tried it already. This is totally something they would do, and they actually have legitimate reasons this time to do so.

And to be clear: I'm no fan of this idea. For all the reasons Nilay mentioned, but also because I like being able to charge my phone and listen to audio at the same time.1 I'm also worried that Apple may give Beats de facto exclusive rights to that port (perhaps by making the process too difficult for third parties to adopt it), which is also something Apple would do. That would be a very sad moment indeed for people who appreciate audio quality - few of whom appreciate Beats.

If there's any glimmer of hope, it's that Apple does thankfully also have a history of walking back some of its more controversial omissions - both of the iPods mentioned above were eventually reverted to their previous forms with physical buttons, for instance. With any luck, they'll eventually settle on the scheme that makes the most sense for both Apple and their users.

  1. You can actually do that today with Lightning - but it involves a Lightning to 30-pin adapter, a 30-pin to USB/analog audio converter, poor quality audio output, and no way to change the volume. That's no way to live.