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Thoughts on the Inevitable Demise of the 3.5mm Audio Jack on the iPhone

There are once again rumors that Apple is going to remove the 3.5mm audio jack from the next iPhone, this time courtesy of a report from Japanese website Macotakara. The Macotakara report goes on to suggest that audio output on the iPhone 7 will be handled via the Lightning connector and Bluetooth, and that the EarPod included with every iPhone will be upgraded and use the Lightning connector.

It's too early to tell whether Apple really will get rid of the 3.5mm audio jack on the iPhone 7 next year, but I think the real question is when will they get rid of it, not if they get rid of it. In my eyes, it's either going to happen in 2016 with the iPhone 7 or 2018 with the iPhone 8. I will be amazed, probably dumbfounded, if we get to 2020 and our phones still have the same 3.5mm audio jack. Although Macotakara implied that the reason for removing the audio jack is to make the iPhone thinner, I think the more likely reason is a combination of making it thinner, but also freeing up the volume of space that is occupied by the audio jack internally. Every extra cubic millimeter that they can stuff a battery into is no doubt important (and one of the reasons the Lightning port is so much smaller than the older 30-pin connector).

Given the premise that I think Apple will (at some point) ditch the audio jack, the next question is how they can possibly achieve that with the smallest adverse impact on customers, which should surely be the top priority. The easiest answer, is of course, not to do it. The iPod touch is already just 6.1mm, compared to the iPhone 6 which is 6.9mm, and the iPhone 6s is 7.1mm (thicker because of the addition of 3D Touch). You'll note that despite being an entire millimeter thinner than the iPhone 6s, it still has an audio jack — as does the iPod nano which is just 5.4 mm thick. So there's a question as to whether 2016 is really the year that Apple should remove the audio jack — maybe they can hold out a few more years.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that Apple wants to remove the audio jack from the next iPhone and that they've already decided to do this. Yes, it will be a painful transition, but I also think that there's a lot that Apple can do to ease the transition.

Why Removing the Audio Jack will be a Painful Transition

But let's list some of those pain points, particularly for those who think that this isn't a big deal:

  • None of the wired headphones or audio cables that you own will work with your new iPhone. Yes, there are some headphones, such as these from JBL and Philips, which use the Lightning port already, but chances are, you don't own any of them.
  • There will definitely be a 3.5mm to Lightning port adapter, but it will almost certainly be clunky. But the bigger issue is that you'll also have to remember to bring it with you, and chances are, you'll run into a situation at some point where you want to use 3.5mm headphones and don't have an adapter with you.
  • You might grow tired of using an adapter and buy some new Lightning connector headphones, then realise you can't use them with any of your other devices. At this point you might find yourself in the bizarre position of buying a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter so that you can use these headphones (which you specifically purchased to avoid the situation of having to use an adapter).
  • What do you do when you want to charge your iPhone and use your wired headphones, or you're hosting a party and your iPhone is connected to a stereo with a 3.5mm audio cable and want to make sure the iPhone doesn't run out of battery?
  • Headphones using the Lightning connector will almost certainly be more expensive because of the additional costs of the Lightning connector parts, and also Apple's MFi licensing/certification fees.
  • (This one is a negative for Apple, not so much the customer) The endless jokes (and some misinformation) that will further the view/stereotype that Apple is constantly out there trying to squeeze every last dollar out of every single customer.

I Think There is a Way to (Mostly) Resolve This

For the reasons outlined above, I think the removal of the audio jack on an iPhone is a much more significant change than switching from a 30-pin connector to the Lightning port. It is inevitable that the removal of the 3.5mm audio jack will cause pain, frustration, and annoyance amongst virtually all iPhone customers (to varying degrees). Apple is well aware of this, and I think they should be doing everything they can to minimise these adverse effects on customers.

In essence, I think Apple should do three things. Firstly, acknowledge the trade-off Apple have made and the frustration some customers may feel. Secondly, clearly enunciate the benefits of switching away from the 3.5mm audio jack to the Lightning connector and Bluetooth audio. And thirdly, make the customer's transition away from the 3.5mm audio jack as painless as possible. I'll leave the first two up to Apple's marketing team, but I do have some thoughts on the third.

What Apple Must Do

Include Compatible Headphones
This one really speaks for itself, if every iPhone so far has come with headphones, then the next one also needs to come with headphones, and they obviously need to work with the new iPhone. This means including new EarPods that connect via Bluetooth or through the Lightning connector. The Macotakara report says they will do this, and I'm pretty confident that they will.

Include a 3.5mm audio to Lightning Adapter
Many people will want to keep using their existing headphones and audio cables with the new iPhone. Making these people buy an adapter separately just doesn't make sense to me when the cost of bundling an adapter is surely negligible to Apple. This may actually happen, because the Apple Pencil does come with a Lightning adapter (so that you can use the Lightning cable, rather than iPad, to charge the Pencil) and an extra tip.

Sell additional adapters for <$10
In my opinion, one of the most egregious things Apple did with the 30-pin to Lightning connector switch was charge absolutely ludicrous amounts for adapters and cables. There's the Lightning to 30-pin Adapter for $29, Lightning to 30-pin 20 cm cable for $39, and of course the Lightning cable for $19.

So any 3.5mm audio jack to Lightning adapter (or vice versa) should really be sold for $10 or less. Anything else and it's just Apple profiting from people's frustrations about a product choice Apple has purposefully made. I highly doubt Apple would make the choice to remove the 3.5mm audio jack so that they can make money from selling adapters, but that's exactly the impression it leaves on customers when they charge these amounts. Plus if Apple didn't make the choice to earn additional profits, what harm is there in selling the adapters for a low and reasonable price?

What Apple Should Do

Give the Adapters Away
As discussed numerous times, removing the 3.5mm audio jack is going to be frustrating, so why not take away most of the reasons for people to be frustrated? Sure, people might have to use adapters and they might have to keep a few in different locations, that's annoying, but if they didn't cost anything, I imagine a lot of people might have a little grumble at first, but then get over it. Let people come to the Apple Store and pick up a few for free. If necessary, have them registered to their iPhone's serial number and limit it to something like 5 or 10 per device to prevent abuse of the concession. These adapters would be cheap as chips for Apple to make and the amount of goodwill this could generate is surely worth it.

Sell additional adapters for <$5
Sure, $10 is reasonable, but I think we all know that these would probably cost less than $0.50 to make, so $5 seems like a more appropriate price.

Include more adapters with the iPhone
I think Apple would need to include at least 1 adapter, but 2 or 3 would be better, without being a waste (I certainly have 2 headphones I regularly use with my iPhone).

Reduce MFi costs
I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the specifics of Apple's MFi program, but I believe there are some restrictions and costs around manufacturing MFi products, such as Lightning cables. Perhaps it would be useful for Apple to reduce the restrictions and costs on third parties who want to make headphones/audio cables for the Lightning port. This would hopefully make prices cheaper for the consumer who is looking to buy headphones which work directly with Lightning connector.

Additional Questions to Consider

It is kind of amazing how much discussion can come out of the idea of removing the 3.5mm audio jack out of a mobile phone. I could honestly go on for another 5,000 words, because there are a lot of arguments and points to be made on a whole range of points of view. But I'll leave you with a few key questions that I thought of whilst writing this story.

  1. Throughout this story I've gone along with the premise put forward by Macotakara that the wired audio output will be done by the Lightning connector — but why not USB-C? If the 3.5mm audio jack really is going to die, wouldn't it be better to use a standardized port, not a proprietary one like the Lightning connector? Surely it's a step backwards if we have to buy different headphones for our phone, tablet and laptop? Plus, it's not like Apple is avoiding USB-C, they're pioneers of the USB-C standard and have already included it on their new MacBook and as the new Apple TV's diagnostic port.
  2. How long will it take for all of Apple's devices (iPhones, iPads, MacBooks) to make the switch to audio over Lightning and remove the 3.5mm audio jack?
  3. Maybe the way to "market" the removal of the 3.5mm audio jack in a positive way is by making a cornerstone feature of the iPhone 7 as "cable-free". Apple could include wireless charging and heavily promote Bluetooth headphones (including wireless EarPods) as the "future" of the iPhone. Framed this way, Apple could somewhat truthfully claim that they thought about removing the Lightning port as well, but kept it because they recognised people wouldn't always want to wirelessly charge their iPhone and may still want to use their wired headphones (which they can with the included adapter). Food for thought at least.
  4. If Apple knew they were doing this, and I'm sure they planned this in advance, a question I have is why not start including the default EarPods with a Lightning connector with this year's iPhone 6s or even last year's iPhone 6? These are "free" headphones, so people could hardly make the complaint that they weren't compatible with other devices. Plus it would have spurred other manufacturers to make them, and a lot of people (but not all) might already have a few compatible headphones for when Apple does inevitably remove the 3.5mm audio jack.
  5. If we do get audio via the Lightning connector, does this mean that the Siri Remote with the new Apple TV will be able to play audio through its Lightning connector?

Whether Apple removes the 3.5mm audio jack next year, or in a couple of years' time, we don't know yet. But I think it is inevitable, as is the outburst of outrage. The key question is how Apple manages the change and how far they go in reducing the frustration that consumers face — that's the real test. Yet even if Apple's handling of the inevitable switch is a disaster, the effect on the sales of the iPhone will likely be negligible, but that should not be an excuse for Apple to do nothing or very little. I hope they'll keep customer satisfaction at the forefront of their considerations and do as much as they can to minimise the adverse impact that such a change will bring about.

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