Why Apple shouldn’t put a headphone adapter in the iPhone 7 box

Michael Simon
7 September, 2016
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It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the next iPhone will ship without a headphone jack. Rumours have been swirling for months, and last week a supposed snapshot of the iPhone 7 packaging all but confirmed it: Apple’s new handset won’t include the traditional 3.5mm EarPods, but rather new Lightning ones.

This doesn’t concern or surprise me. The headphone port is one of the oldest pieces of legacy tech and quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Apple to ditch it. Like many of you, I’ve been using a pair of Bluetooth earbuds for years, and to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I plugged a pair of headphones into my iPhone. But I understand the backlash. People spend lots of money on wired headphones with the understanding that they will be compatible with any audio-capable device they buy.

What does surprise me is that Apple seemingly cares about their plight. Rather than force millions of iPhone 7 buyers to add a new pair of headphones or earbuds to their order or purchase an overpriced dongle, the same packaging screenshot reveals an uncharacteristic plan to include a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter in the iPhone 7 box, presumably in an effort to cut off the backlash and the inevitable class-action lawsuit before they can even start.

While it’s certainly a nice gesture, I don’t think it’s the right move.

Shift assist

Dongles and adapters aren’t exactly uncommon in Apple’s world. Every few years or so Apple decides some previously important piece of tech has run its course, and tens of millions of users are left with suddenly obsolete accessories.

To help ease the transition, Apple generally offers a stopgap solution. When the 30-pin connector was replaced with Lightning, for example, there were not one but two adapters designed to keep alarm clocks and car kits running for a few more months. Small, clumsy and expensive, there was nothing convenient about them, but they served their purpose; within a year or two, mostly everyone had converted to Lightning and Apple was able to safely leave the 30-pin port in the past.

The headphone jack presents a more difficult dilemma. While 30-pin and Lightning were both proprietary ports limited to Apple’s mobile devices, the 3.5mm port is everywhere: PCs, stereos, dashboard decks, alarm clocks… you name it. Removing that port from the iPhone doesn’t make it much closer to obsolescence and, in fact, it’s doubtful it will have much of an effect on the headphone market at all. Sure, there may be a few more Lightning-based cans on the market (and certainly a few models made by Beats), but for the most part, Apple’s decision to axe the headphone jack isn’t about the industry, it’s about the iPhone.

Cord cutting

There are numerous reasons why Apple would want to eliminate the 3.5mm port from the iPhone, most of which have already been discussed. But if I had to guess at the primary motivation, it’s not about audio quality or repair frequency. The most logical reason for Apple to take away the headphone jack is most likely to continue the push toward wireless everything.

Where Apple once proudly embraced its dangling white earbud wires, these days coolness is measured by what isn’t attached to your phone. With the launch of the Apple Watch and the expansion of CarPlay, there is a clear push for freedom, not just from wires but from inconvenience. Aside from arguments about sound quality (which, to be fair, is a big deal when we’re talking about headphones), Bluetooth headphones offer a superior user experience, and the elimination of the 3.5mm jack presumably paves the way for mass adoption of Bluetooth, opening the door to more ubiquitous voice control and tighter integration with Apple Watch.

The inclusion of Lightning EarPods in the box doesn’t change this. While a free pair of pricey Bluetooth earbuds was a nice dream, few people really believed Apple was actually going to do that. The bundled earbuds were always going to be Lightning, but I’m willing to bet a wireless version will be heavily promoted, perhaps even as a BTO option.

Stuck in the past

But an adapter sends a different message entirely. Of course, Apple can’t expect every iPhone 7 buyer to plunk down an extra couple hundred bucks on a high-end pair of Bluetooth headphones, so a US$29 adapter was always going to be part of the transition.

But while selling an adapter says, ‘If you need this you can buy it, but we think you can get along without one,’ including one in the box is an admission that most people probably need one. In a nutshell, it says the iPhone 7 isn’t good enough. Not only is it needlessly unsightly, it gives people a reason not to embrace Apple’s vision and creates fragmentation within the same model of iPhone. Removing the headphone jack should be about the future, about Siri and about bringing the Apple experience to another level, but a bundled adapter gives one foot in the past.

Eventually we’ll get there. Before long the removal of the 3.5mm jack will be something we barely talk about, as other manufacturers follow Apple’s lead and headphone manufacturers ramp up their Bluetooth offerings. We saw it with SCSI and USB, and it’ll be the same with 3.5mm headphones. It just may take a little longer this time around.

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