Apple, the iPhone and the case of the missing headphone jack

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To say that there has been a great hue and cry about Apple removing the headphone jack from its newest iPhones would be like saying k.d. lang can carry a tune.

The gnashing of teeth could be heard across Twitter, Facebook and reddit. The general consensus seems to be that Apple was arrogant, stupid, elitist and greedy to get rid of a port that has been a staple in audio equipment for a century.

In the headphone jack's stead, for those who don't know, Apple has opted for going wireless or, in a pinch, using the Lightning port has been employed mostly for charging iDevices.

I say mostly, because there already are headphones that use the port. And the microphone I use to record the audio version of this podcast is a digital one that jacks into the Lightning port as well.

When the new iPhones come out later this week they will include a Lightning to 3.5 mm jack (the standard headphone jack) conversion dongle. And, listeners will also be able to pump their tunes through bog standard Bluetooth speakers or headphones. There are dozens of varieties of those.

Apple will soon release its new wireless AirPods that make use of standard Bluetooth plus some Apple software tossed into the mix. That will provide stereo sound with no wires between the earbuds at all. The AirPods will work with other audio gear that support Bluetooth.

It's also worth noting that according to the NPD group, in June wireless headphone sales outstripped wired sales by four per cent. That is, of course, before Apple's jackless phones are even out. 

But, despite all that, it is true that Apple is opting for a proprietary port and a proprietary wireless standard. I completely understand the general outrage about the elitist walled garden Apple is creating.

But this isn't the first time Apple has replaced or moved on from input methods, ports and media types.

It has abandoned the serial and parallel ports (for USB), has dropped Ethernet on laptops, ignored Flash support in iOS, has gotten rid of the floppy drive on the first iMac and has introduced a smartphone minus a physical keyboard. That was when RIM and every other smartphone maker had physical keyboards. Now even RIM is abandoning them.

And, deep inside the iPhone there is a ton of propriety hardware and software nobody complains about. Apple has designed some of the best propriety chips in the world. The A series silicon (currently the A10 Fusion) and the software that is bound to it, have given the iPhone its speed, capacity and battery life. Apple's secure enclave protects and encrypts our biometrics and identity. Its propriety digital image software gives the iPhone the ability to produce great pictures from tiny lenses and sensors.

No one is moaning that their pictures look great, their biometrics are safe and their apps pop up quickly. That's mostly because all the innovations and designs that have set aside industry standards are tiny and beneath the glass of the screen.

So, if you're going to moan about or not use an Apple device because it has replaced aging, inefficient hardware and software you're a little late.

There is no doubt in my mind that in under a decade we'll be living in a wireless audio world. The idea that we had copper cables running from our phones to our ears will be seen as laughable as rabbit ears are now.

And, yes, Apple could wait until Bluetooth gets up to speed. But, honestly, we've all already been waiting for years. Like Linux, every year is supposed to be "The Year Bluetooth Didn't Suck." Right now, Bluetooth does suck. It hates passing through water the way a cat does. 

Unfortunately our heads are just ripe melons with some synapses inside. So passing a Bluetooth signal from one earbud to another is like expecting a Smart Car to ford the Mississippi. And Bluetooth pairing, sound quality and robust connectivity are, well, not all one could hope for.

So Apple gave up waiting. And with good reason. Right now the digital signals to AirPods just delivers stereo sound and Siri commands. But, that's just the opening gambit.

Already, even with the limitations of Bluetooth, we've seen companies like Starkey and Resound create hearing aids that can be tuned from a smartphone that can also route calls and music to them. 

And both Motorola and Bragi has offered totally wireless earpods with different degrees of success.

It's easy to imagine Apple AirPods that will be able to send custom hearing profiles to the in-ear devices based on the wearers location, provide custom noise cancellation and other next generation features made possible by a reliable, high fidelity signal.

As I've written about before, I think the next leap in user interface will be hearables. It doesn't take much imagination to shrink the AirPods, improve Siri, add extra sensors (including blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels) to in-ear devices connected wirelessly to smartphones.

This is clearly where Apple is headed. They don't get there by waiting around for a shitty standard to improve, nor by running white wires to their headphones.

Think about the dual cameras Apple also introduced. You could just say, "Big deal, a 2x zoom and fuzzy backgrounds." But, again, you have to imagine the future. Most of the photography that takes place in smartphones happens in software, not hardware. Two lens means in the near future Apple can do other magic tricks with the lens. Simulating narrow depth-of-field is just the opening parlour trick, not the end game.

As Marshall McLuhan said, "You can't drive into the future looking in the rear view mirror." Nor, I would add, can you drive there on automatic without losing the stick shift.


Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: flickr/Paul Hudson

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