Is killing the iPhone’s headphone jack Apple’s “New Coke” moment?
Wireless headphones aren't a good enough replacement.
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As with most things in my life, when it comes to technology I’m an optimist. I want to live in a world where smart people try bold things and just try to figure it out along the way.
But despite that, I can’t for the life of me bring myself to buy an iPhone 7 now that Apple has killed the headphone jack. It’s a baffling decision, and the closest thing to an explanation Apple gave during its presentation was to cite the “courage” of its designers in eliminating a standard that has worked perfectly fine for decades.
The courage line was, above anything else in the keynote, insulting—primarily to people who actually display real courage every day in jobs that don’t involve designing pocket computers, but also to the intelligence of Apple’s own customers.
Wireless headphones are neat. People are buying them, more often than wired headphones these days. But they’re also complex, unreliable, and generally more expensive than their wired counterparts. People are buying more of them because they very likely already have multiple pairs of wired headphones that have been working just fine for years.
Why is Apple getting rid of the headphone jack in the first place? It’s not clear. Pierce through the attempt at conjuring up another of Apple’s famous reality distortion fields and you’ll see that there’s not much behind it at all.
Existing headphones already can do nearly everything that new, more expensive Lightning-powered headphones can do, except force headphone companies—like the Apple-owned Beats By Dre brand—to license the right to use a Lightning connector. And Apple’s new wireless AirPods are—like most “truly” wireless earbuds—a truly terrible idea.
The new AirPods essentially look like the existing Apple earbuds with the wires removed. They stick in your ear, and the little stems that usually house the wires just end where the wire would be. They look like skinny, white versions of existing hands-free bluetooth earbuds.
The problem with making the new AirPods truly wireless is they’re now significantly more complicated devices. All wireless earbuds need three things built in: a battery, a way to receive music, and a way to convert your digital music into analog sound.
Most of the time, you’ll have one of each, with a little wire running between the buds so they can share. With “truly” wireless earbuds, you have to double everything. That means twice the engineering, twice the complexity, and a significant bump in price. When wireless earbuds are already notoriously unreliable, that’s a big problem.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place. There are activities where having no wire at all is an advantage. But here’s the rub: you could just as easily have wireless headphones, and a bigger battery, and a better camera, and waterproofing and still have a headphone jack, too.
What Apple has done is remove the option altogether. It’s like bringing New Coke to market and ditching the old recipe. I’m sure Coca-Cola thought that was a courageous move, too.
I’m no engineer, but the images Apple used in its presentation seemed to show the fancy new home button taking up significantly more space than before—space that used to be where the headphone jack resided. If that’s the trade-off, then give me a headphone jack any day.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Apple took a perfectly functional standard and replaced it with a host of proprietary solutions that don’t currently benefit customers in any meaningful way. That alone is fine—progress is painful, and Apple's included adapter will still let you plug in headphones—but trying to make the headphone jack seem like a century-old monstrosity that doesn’t belong in our modern, beautiful phones is an act of intellectual dishonesty.
Here’s the thing: technology is not an endurance sport. It’s a brutal, Darwinian arena where only the strong survive. That the headphone jack has lasted this long is not an accident, it’s a testament to how well it has worked. It's a core component that is small, unobtrusive, and free of the messy things like licenses, patents, and restrictions.
Why would Apple finally decide to put such a thing out to pasture? Beats me.