At the iPhone 7 launch event, Apple confirmed that they were removing the earphone, and justified it in the name of “courage”. Which was, of course, a ridiculous, tone-deaf thing to say; watching the blowback, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that they were at least correct in that making that choice did require courage. I’m seeing people blast Apple for the removal (not just for their choice of words) all over the place, and it’s quite possibly the single biggest story coming out of the iPhone 7 launch event; getting that amount of negative press and the corresponding potential impact on sales of their single largest-revenue item does in fact require courage. That doesn’t mean that it was a good choice, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they should have used courage as a justification or talked about it at all, but courage was in fact required to make that decision.
In particular, I was surprised just how many times the following tweets got retweeted into my Twitter feed:
The real real reason for removing the headphone jack. The iPhone is now completely closed. https://t.co/CSvIDOJ7O0
— Eric Nakagawa 🍕👑 (@ericnakagawa) September 8, 2016
— demi gorgon (@iroc) September 7, 2016
When you say “the real reason”, or describe actions as “sinister and accurate as fuck”, you are engaging in conspiracy theorizing. Which doesn’t mean that you’re incorrect: there are plenty of conspiracies out there in the world! But, if you’re going to do that, at least take alternate possible explanations seriously; maybe the people I follow who quoted those tweets were doing so, but when I do, I don’t end up at the same conclusion at all.
Apple has shown over and over again over the years that:
1) They like making devices thinner and thinner.
2) They like putting new sensors into their devices.
3) They care a lot about battery life.
4) They don’t like wires.
If you put the first three together: they want to remove as much from the interior of their devices as possible, so that they can either use the space savings for thinness, for sensors, or for batteries. This is particularly true with objects that are tall (I doubt they would have removed the ethernet port when they did if it weren’t so tall), but it’s a big part of why optical drives disappeared from their laptops, why the ethernet port disappeared, why spinning hard drives disappeared, why they’re putting less travel in their most recent keyboards, why they replaced the 30-pin connector with the Lightning connector, why they moved to USB-C in their most recently designed laptop. There are other reasons for all of those choices, but they all paint a picture of Apple wanting to shrink or remove ports from their devices, in the name of either thinness or more battery.
And they don’t like wires: you can see this in Apple’s early embrace of wifi, in their eventual removal of the ethernet port, in their switch to bluetooth mice and keyboards, in the removal of a dedicated charging port in their latest laptop. I don’t know how much of this is a feeling that wires pollute the beauty of their design and how much is a feeling that wires get tangled and otherwise restrict movement and device usage, but either way I’m confident that Apple’s design team prefers to do without wires whenever possible.
So, if you put those together: we have a single-use port that takes up space inside the device (not a lot, but not nothing, either), where there’s a wireless technology that is growing in popularity. Apparently about a sixth of US headphones sold are Bluetooth; I was surprised that the percentage was that high, but if it is, maybe it really is the case that we’re about to reach a tipping point and that wired headphones are going to go the way of the floppy disk over the next few years.
To repeat, none of this means that Apple’s decision was a good one: I actually personally still don’t think that it was, though I don’t have a feel for the details of the pros and cons. (Buzzfeed had a good interview on the subject; note that the iPhone 7’s battery is 14% bigger than in its predecessors.) It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about the problems of closed systems. But calling a desire to lock things down “the real reason” (and then saying that the iPhone is “completely closed”, ignoring standards such as Bluetooth and WiFi), or saying this is “sinister and accurate as fuck” seems to me to be going out of your way to jump to the least charitable interpretation possible.
I’m not even sure exactly what the case is that removing the jack increases closedness in a problematic way. The headphone jack was in Apple’s control before, because it was inside a device they made; now it’s an inch outside the device, connected via an adapter they control. Is there any evidence that it behaves differently in the new location, or that they’re more able to exert control in the new location than in the old location? (The Square card reader still works.)
Also, is the complaint that Apple will prevent hardware manufacturers from using the Lightning port in some ways, or is it that they’ll charge licensing fees? Given how Apple treats the App Store, the former seems like a reasonable fear, admittedly, though I can’t quite envision what sort of uses they’d want to prevent; for the latter, I prefer open connector standards, but it’s business, and a $4 fee doesn’t seem like a reason for me personally to care: I don’t buy a lot of Lightning accessories, so those fees cost me less than $10 per phone.
Or is the complaint a cultural preservation one, that it makes it harder to make copies of audio coming out of the phone? If that’s the issue, then: 1) The Lightning port gives you higher-quality audio; 2) The headphone adapter is still there; 3) There’s never been a similar builtin capability for video, and I’m not sure why audio is more important than video; 4) Even in a dystopian world of locked-down audio output, the speaker is still there.
For that last one, what people should really be lobbying for is a way to have virtual audio devices at an OS level. That’s something that really does limit the capabilities of the phone: if you want to write a podcast mixing app, and you want to let it use Skype recordings as an input source, then you’re at Microsoft’s mercy, and Microsoft won’t let you; Apple could bypass that.
Or push on Apple to aggressively open up Siri’s capabilities, or to let you specify different default mail programs or web browsers. Or push on the big one, content limits in the App Store: I can see a justification for the existence of the App Store from a security point of view, but restrictions on the topics that art works in the store are allowed to cover?
Or just complain because you’ve got earphones you like and you think the adapter is ungainly. But really: taking the fact that Apple moved the earphone jack from inside the device to on an adapter an inch outside of the device, and seeing it as primarily motivated by an attack on openness? I do not get that one.
This post has not been revised since publication.