Apple ditches headphone jack: why some mourn loss of 'ancient' tech

This week Apple announced that the new iPhone 7 and 7 plus, the newest models in their successful series of smartphones, will no longer include a headphone jack.

Richard Drew/AP
The earphone jack and charging port is shown on an Apple iPhone 6, in New York, Sept. 2.

Apple is no stranger to big or controversial announcements. In 2001 the company, then headed by visionary leader Steve Jobs, made history by announcing the first generation of iPods, thus revolutionizing the portable music industry and initiating a transformation of the way we think about music as a whole.

In this week’s keynote address, marketing chief Phil Schiller announced that from now on, new versions of Apple’s popular iPhone and iPhone plus smartphones will not include a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack – once again making Apple the first company to abandon a long-standing tradition.

"The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us," Mr. Schiller said onstage in his Wednesday address.

That "something new" is part of Apple's new push to market their own line of Bluetooth wireless accessories, as well as those made by Beats by Dre — a high-end headphone manufacturer founded by hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre and acquired by Apple in 2014. All Apple and Beats products will now feature the new W1 chip designed by Apple to cohesively interact with all current Apple products both via bluetooth as well as utilizing Apple’s cloud-based iCloud sharing program.

The earpieces are integrated with Siri, Apple's artificial intelligence system, and are designed to simplify everyday functions like making calls and receiving information on an Apple Watch.

"It's not just about your iPhone anymore," says mobile tech analyst Carolina Milanese of Creative Strategies. "It's about getting consumers thinking more about that ecosystem of Apple products and how they all play nicely together."

Ms. Milanese sees a greater overarching goal in streamlining Apple connectivity: reversing Apple’s recent decline in sales.

While the removal of a headphone jack may feel like an unlikely way to strengthen that ecosystem, analyst Julie Ask of Forrester Research points out, "Apple has a very long history of removing features we all thought were necessary, and then convincing us that we didn't need them.”

She points to the way Apple led the industry in moving away from floppy discs and optical drives in computers. "Three months later, it will be, 'Why did we ever have that?' "

The earliest versions of in-ear headphones were designed as telephone receivers and were invented and patented in 1891 by French engineer Ernest Jules Pierre Mercadier, as The Washington Post notes. But in 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin, an electrical engineer and Mormon fundamentalist, developed modern-style headphones in his kitchen, which the US Navy purchased for their dramatically improved sound quality. 

In 1979 Sony introduced the Walkman stereo, a portable tape player that launched the first widespread use of the 3.5-mm headphone jack. In 2001, when Apple introduced the iPod, it came standard with the now-iconic set of white plastic earbuds. By the 2012 debut of the iPhone 5, Apple claimed to have shipped 600 million pairs of those earbuds worldwide.

Now Apple is removing the headphone port altogether.

Critics are already piling on. In an article for Yahoo Finance, Ethan Wolff-Mann describes the decision as “spitting on history.” Describing the incredible variety of connectivity options, he views the headphone jack as “a rare example of completely mature technology.”

Apple's Mr. Schiller disagrees, deriding the single-use port as an “ancient” technology. The new phones will come with an external headphone jack which can be plugged into the iPhone’s multi-use Lightning port, but Shiller says Apple sees the future of mobile sound being dominated by innovative wireless technology – such as their new W1 chip, embedded in their new Airpods and the new line of Beats by Dre headphones.

"We've got this 50-year-old connector — just a hole filled with air — and it's just sitting there taking up space, really valuable space," Apple hardware engineering chief Dan Riccio told BuzzFeed News. "It was holding us back from a number of things we wanted to put into the iPhone. It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life. And frankly, when there's a better, modern solution available, it's crazy to keep it around.”

Many Apple customers disagree, however. As of Thursday morning, more than 300,000 people had signed a petition asking Apple to keep the headphone jack, citing concerns around increases in consumer costs and electronic waste disposal.

"Not only will this force iPhone users to dole out additional cash to replace their hi-fi headphones, it will singlehandedly create mountains of electronic waste – that likely won't get recycled," the petition reads.

Despite consumer resistance, it may be just a matter of time before the tech world ditches wires entirely, as numerous other companies are already pushing toward a wire-free world.

When Nikolaj Hviid, the chief executive officer of German wireless earbud company Bragi, announced his company’s partnership with IBM’s artificial intelligence interface, he described how users would be able to give and receive instantly translated instructions in multiple languages, monitor vital signs, and help first responders communicate more effectively.

“This is not about making headphones,” Mr Hviid said, as quoted in Fortune. “It’s about taking the user interface from your eyes and hand and having a much more discreet one when needed. It’s part of a bigger puzzle.”

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