Why The Headphone Jack Is More Important Than You Think

The iPhone 7’s switch to Lightning and wireless listening will affect an entire industry of products.

September 21, 2016
Why The Headphone Jack Is More Important Than You Think TechRax / YouTube.com

Apple’s iPhone 7 reveal earlier this month confirmed a long-standing rumor: the headphone jack is gone, leaving only Apple’s Lightning port. Apple claimed the decision came down to space, and that the company could not make the iPhone water resistant without removing the jack (even though the Samsung Galaxy S7 is now waterproof with a headphone jack, after some bumps in the road). Since the announcement, the discussion has mostly focused on music: because headphones with a 3.5mm jack are the standard, what will the transition to Lightning — and, eventually a wireless future — look like? It’s an important conversation, but narrow in focus.

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The headphone jack’s function goes beyond listening, and phasing it out hands Apple more control over an entire marketplace of iPhone products and accessories, and by extension, your habits as a consumer. More and more mobile companies are cozying up to this kind of insularity, which means that consumers will be funneled into proprietary purchases, whether brand-exclusive or brand-sanctioned, as third-party developers are priced out.

Because the headphone jack is an analog port, invented way back in the 19th century, independent developers can build all kinds of products with no oversight from Apple — check out a selection of inspiring designs all built for the iPhone’s 3.5mm port, compiled by TechCrunch’s Haje Jan Kamps. Lightning, introduced by Apple with the iPhone 5 in September 2012, is digital, and proprietary to Apple. They own it, and a chip determines if every accessory you plug in has a “Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad” (or “MFi”) license. Without it, the device may work poorly or not at all.

The only way for developers to get the credibility of a “MFi” brand on their products is to take part in the MFi program. It’s notoriously secretive, restricted to companies and not individuals, and Apple is rumored to take a $4 to $8 cut for every device sold. (The FADER reached out to Apple for comment, but they did not respond.)

That’s a sizable profit loss for Willi Wu, the developer behind a mobile thermometer called Thermodo, a device that currently operates via the headphone jack. “We can make Thermodo using the Lightning connector, but that requires us to increase the price significantly,” he wrote in an email to The FADER, adding that losing the headphone jack would force Thermodo’s design to change. “We need lots of extra electronic components and an Apple proprietary MFi chip. I also think Thermodo will be a bit bigger than the current version.”

Wu expects that Thermodo will work with the Lightning-to-stereo adapter that Apple has said will come with every iPhone 7. However, Thermodo and many other devices may have their functionality limited by the laws of physics. Square, the company that makes very popular mobile credit card readers, claimed their magnetic stripe readers will work with the adapter. But when tech blogger Brian Roemmele tested it with an iPhone 7, he found the Square reader more difficult to use, writing at Forbes: “You simply cannot find a holding position to make it work with the standard Apple converter cable… The transverse force and the low available surface area to hold and anchor the cable and Square Card Reader makes [using] this a very tough feat. Additionally, there is a tendency for the Square Card Reader to spin in the 3.5mm plug.”

So how will the converter cable affect a shotgun mic? A 3D scanner? Are products like Pluggy Lock destined for obsolescence? It’s clear that Square's converter cable was designed only with headphones in mind, and other companies – as well as the thousands of people who own their products – will have to wait and see how their accessories function with the iPhone 7’s converter on a case-by-case basis.

As Android Authority has pointed out, going proprietary is an extremely profitable move for Apple, which saw iPhone sales fall for the second quarter in a row this year. “Accessories are a lucrative business that Apple is yet to fully tap into,” wrote Android Authority reporter Rob Tripp. “And using proprietary pieces of technology, including its Lightning port and wireless W1 chip […] could be used to hook customers out of competing products and into its own extended product range.”

Take Beats, the headphone line that Apple acquired in August 2014. The company announced new wireless models at this month’s Apple event that run on the proprietary W1 chip. You could use any old Bluetooth headphones with the iPhone 7, but there’s a trade-off, as Nilay Patel at The Verge writes: “[T]he best wireless audio experience available in the Apple ecosystem come from either Apple’s AirPods or its new Beats headphones, which use Apple’s proprietary W1 chip atop the Bluetooth protocol.”

Digital artist David O’Reilly, developer of the iOS game Mountain, told The FADER this move allows Apple to make boatloads of cash while limiting how their products are used. “Apple wants to create their own standards. They are creating machines that only function within their ecosystem. There are efficiency benefits for doing this, but it’s also how you destroy competition.” But, O’Reilly doesn’t see Apple as uniquely dictatorial. “Every other tech company of their scale would do the same thing. Apple will take heat for a while, but will be congratulated when the growing pains are over.”

In fact, other mobile phone companies are already pulling similar moves. The Lenovo Moto Z was initially announced with no headphone jack and a USB-C port (like Lightning, USB-C is a digital port that allows companies to place all kinds of proprietary restrictions). Though a different model that included a headphone jack, the Moto Z Play, was revealed a month later, it’s a clear signal. LeEco also announced that its new phones will replace the headphone jack with a USB-C port. Samsung, another top-selling smartphone brand, is reportedly considering ditching the headphone jack as well.

During the iPhone 7 announcement, Apple’s vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller attributed the company’s decision to lose the headphone jack to “courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us." The reason this statement was so widely derided was because, although admittedly an unpopular move presently, Apple is banking that removing the headphone jack will yield significant profits down the road. Intended or not, one of the effects of this decision is a much smaller community of creators who can deliver new and exciting additions to the iPhone. This could also be bad news for Apple, a company that inspired the term "sherlocking," meaning to take features from third-party software and integrate it into their products. As the iPhone becomes less open, and as the industry follows suit, it's going to make new ideas harder to execute, and less worth coming up with in the first place. In the end, our devices could lose capabilities we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

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Why The Headphone Jack Is More Important Than You Think