By: Robert Beiler
With the announcement of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Apple’s update to the iconic smartphone received quite a bit of backlash. While the company’s changes could leave a mark on a number of industries, users and accessory makers could be left adrift for a time.
The most dramatic change to the devices, compared to previous versions, is the removal of the headphone jack. Now standard headphones using a 3.5mm connection will no longer work with the new devices without an adapter. This was a rumored change for months leading up to the announcement of the 7 and 7 Plus.
The rumor set off a heated debate within technology blogs and news sites. Nilay Patel, Editor-in-Chief of The Verge penned an article calling the move “user hostile and stupid.” Others like Steve Kovach of Tech Insider compared it to Apple’s decision to change from the former 30-pin charging cable to the current Lightning cable: an annoying transition but ultimately will become normal.
This very well may be the case as iOS devices like the iPhone represent over 27 percent of the smartphone market according to Netmarketshare. Though Android has a significantly higher market share at 66 percent, this is broken up among multiple manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, and HTC. Apple’s previous moves regarding ports, like making the newest Macbook offer only a single USB-C port, tend to steer the market. Since the release of that Macbook, USB-C devices have begun a steady gain in popularity. The iPhone 7 is not even the first device to make such a change, with the Motorola Moto Z releasing earlier in June with no headphone jack and to little buzz outside of tech enthusiasts.
Apple also received the (frankly well deserved) brunt of a number of editorials after their announcement. This was in no small part due to referring to the removal of the headphone jack as taking a courageous leap during the presentation. To be specific, it was when Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller said it was “the courage to move on and do something better for all of us.” Chris Taylor of Mashable called this hubris. “What has Apple done,” he wrote, “It has eradicated the most successful, most widespread and best-sounding audio standard in the world in favor of its own proprietary system.” Harsh words, but perhaps Schiller will be more careful in describing Apple’s attempts at innovation in the future.
Why would Apple make a change to such a commonplace accessory? The cynical answer that comes to mind is this gives them more control over their platform. If manufacturers want to build accessories for the iPhone, now they have to be either wireless (using Apple’s improved wireless chip standard) or using the Lighting port (another Apple owned standard). On the flip side, Apple says this will make the device more waterproof by having fewer openings. There is also definite possibility that this could bring about a better future with fewer wires. Between Apple’s push for Bluetooth and the smattering of devices using wireless charging, a future is not too far off of a user who connects to many devices, but never plugs in once.
In the meantime, what does everyone do with their current headphones and accessories? Apple didn’t leave them completely abandoned. Each iPhone 7 will come with an adapter to go from the Lightning port to the standard 3.5mm headphone jack (additional adapters will sell for nine dollars). So, old headphones will continue to work. Devices like selfie sticks and payment readers, such as the Square reader, which draws power from the headphone jack will continue to be able to do so with the adapter. The set up will just be a bit bulkier than previously with the major limitation that there is no built in way to charge and use the port at the same time. Some manufacturers have jumped in with accessories to do both. Belkin’s adapter will be going for $40, a steep price to pay on top of the cost of the phone.
Ultimately, this move could backfire for Apple and leave them vulnerable to more competition from Android. If the iPhone 7 is unsuccessful in changing hearts and minds about moving to wireless headphones, marketing teams could easily fight back and position themselves as simpler devices for the everyman without the need for adapters or setup for something as simple as playing music. Even Windows Phone could leverage this to jump back forcefully into the market because at three percent they don’t really have anything to lose.
Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to further technological advance. The CD replaced the floppy disk. Cloud storage cuts into portable hard drive sales. My wireless future could be just over the horizon, but Apple isn’t the one controlling the ship. We are.