Yesterday, Apple confirmed months of rumors and revealed the iPhone 7 would have no headphone jack. It had the world’s attention, and a perfect opportunity to make clear why it took such a controversial stance. Instead, Apple left the impression that not even Apple understands why it cut the headphone jack, or at least, would rather not acknowledge the real motives behind it.
Apple’s Poor Argument
Apple’s widely derided stance boiled down to three points. The first, which is undeniably true, is that the headphone jack is old technology. The second, also undeniably true, is that using a digital port for digital music would allow Apple to implement more digital effects. Which is fine. And the third, and most widely reviled on the internet, is this one, from one of Apple’s top executives:
…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.
The problem is really this: The courage to do what, exactly? The problem with getting rid of any widely used technology is that companies have to make the case for their replacement. When the DVD arrived, for example, hardware manufacturers made a strong case for it: You could see movies in their proper aspect ratio with a clearer picture, there were special features and alternate soundtracks, and there were plenty of other benefits.
Apple didn’t do the same. While we’re skeptical of the argument against the headphone jack, there’s certainly an argument to be made. With a digital port, your iPhone could, in theory, use its microphone to offer better noise cancellation. Apple could offer more mixing options in the phone itself so you could tweak the sound mix to exactly what you want. There could potentially be a Snapchat-esque social feature which would allow you to add temporary digital effects to songs you and your friends both own and share them. And, bizarrely, Apple barely even touched on the clearest, most obvious benefit for those who care about aesthetics — a thinner phone.
Similarly, Apple revealed the W1 chip without bothering to explain how, precisely, it improved the listening experience. It’s a Bluetooth controller, we know that much, and it has something to do with power management, but what it does and why it’s better is apparently just something we have to take on faith. Apple’s biggest problem, though, is that it inadvertently mentioned the true reason the headphone jack was cut, and it’s the exact opposite of courageous.
Apple’s Real Reason For Cutting The Headphone Jack
It’s obvious to many that cutting the headphone jack has no benefits to consumers, but plenty of benefit for Apple. After all, they own a flashy headphone company built on ruthless hustle, and they invented and own the rights to the Lightning port, so they get a royalty from any sort of product that uses it. But the real benefit, and the reason the claim that cutting headphones out of your iPhone experience is an act of courage is so disingenuous, really lies with Apple’s corporate culture.
The most telling moment in Apple’s pitch to cut the headphone jack was that it opened with an explanation of their philosophy of “closed architecture.” Simply put, Apple runs the whole show: They build the hardware, they code the software, and they have total control over how it’s all used. The headphone jack, however, was a consistent thorn in Apple’s side, from that perspective. Clever entrepreneurs used it to get around Apple’s death grip to design third-party tools, from card readers to meat thermometers. By excising the headphone jack and using a proprietary port like Lightning, anybody who wants to bring an accessory to the iPhone has to get Apple’s approval first.
Sure, as some grouchily point out, there’s a dongle that the iPhone 7 ships with. But this ignores that Apple could decide to stop shipping that dongle and refuse to approve anything that might allow you to use the headphone jack, any time it feels like it. By cutting the jack, Apple once again has total control. Besides, the dongle is a tedious workaround, easily lost, and feels almost deliberately annoying because it’s just another length of wire to keep in your pocket just to use the technology you pay for.
In the end, losing the jack is likely to hurt Apple. While they can point to the iPhone moving a billion units, which is undeniably impressive, the reality is Apple’s global market share and sales are dwarfed by competitors like Samsung on a quarterly basis. Apple desperately needs more innovation beyond just a better camera and throwing Snapchat-esque features on iMessage. It needs to demonstrate just why, in a world where we can buy an iPhone knockoff that works with the stuff we already have, we should bother with an iPhone in the first place.