The Sound of Lightning

Every time someone publishes the rumour that the next iPhone will lack a headphone jack, a mix of anger and incredulity floods my Twitter feed. Today’s antagonizers are Daisuke Wakabayashi and Eva Dou of the Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. plans to break with its recent pattern of overhauling the design of its flagship iPhone every two years, and make only subtle changes in the models it will release this fall, according to people familiar with the matter.


The biggest planned change in this year’s phones is the removal of the headphone plug, which will make the phone thinner and improve its water resistance, said people with that matter.

First, how did the copy editors at the Journal miss the weird construction of that last sentence?

Second, this isn’t really news for those of you who follow the rumour cycle. Macotakara first reported this back in November, and Mark Sullivan of Fast Company and Mark Gurman effectively confirmed the rumour in January. What’s different now is that it’s being reported by the Journal.1

This rumour is the new Apple Rorschach test: some people will see an iPhone without a headphone jack as an indicator that Apple is being user-hostile, or that they have their priorities all screwed up. Others will see it as yet another time when Apple is making a choice that challenges assumed standards in favour of a bold bet on the future.

Will it work? I have no idea. Apple’s competitors are certainly making a similar guess — the new Moto Z doesn’t have a headphone jack, nor do LeEco’s most recent devices.

Regardless of Apple’s success or failure in removing the headphone jack, history has shown that few connectors live for very long. The USB Implementers Forum is encouraging OEMs to move from the long-standard USB-A connector to the new — much better — USB-C standard. Floppy disks did not last forever, and I never want to see a VGA or DVI connector again. The headphone jack will, one day, suffer the same fate.

There are certainly some significant benefits to Lightning. It’s reversible, it’s more durable than most headphone cables, it can be made more water-resistant, and it carries both power and data.

That last point is particularly important when it comes to headphone playback controls, which are currently implemented as a clever hack. When you squeeze the remote, it simply shorts out two of the headphone wires. Smartphones interpret different squeeze patterns as play/pause, skip, rewind, and so forth. Headphone controls that send actual playback control data ought to be significantly more reliable and far easier to use.

But I have reservations about this rumour, primarily because I think the conversation around it has blurred the distinction between replacing the headphone jack with a more modern port, and replacing it with a Lightning connector.

All accessories that wish to use Lightning are required to be a part of Apple’s MFi Program. MFi accessories are subject to strict regulations set by Apple, and their manufacturers are required to pay royalties of $2 per product sold with a Lightning connector. The connector is also not found on competing devices, meaning that if a company wishes to make a product to sell to the entire smartphone user market, they must manufacture at least two variants of the product: one for iPhone users, and one for everyone else.

That might be totally fine. The market won’t be limited to next-generation iPhone users; it will be the user of any iOS device released since the iPhone 5. That’s a huge potential audience, and manufacturers aren’t going to pass that up, even if it does cost them $2 per unit. Any accessory company that doesn’t like that can use Bluetooth, which costs a flat fee for each product rather than each unit.

But there’s a tradeoff here: any company that wishes to make wired headphones for the iPhone will now be subjected to Apple’s rejection or acceptance. This probably won’t matter much to most users, the vast majority of which use the EarPods that come with their iPhone, but it does matter if you wish to change your headphones. For those of us who wish to use better headphones, or those with special requirements — for fitness, a different style, or whatever it may be — this means that our buying choices will be fewer and far between, at least for a while. Or, we’ll have to make do with a converting dongle, and that doesn’t seem elegant at all.

This is a little different than when the Dock Connector was replaced with Lightning. While it became trivial to borrow a Lightning cable off a friend or find one at an airport after a matter of months, headphones are a more personal choice for many of us. I don’t think there’s any question that it’s going to be initially frustrating, but there’s a potential bright light: the premium headphone market is booming, and it’s projected to keep growing. That gives headphone designers and manufacturers a good reason to update their wares and make them Lightning-friendly.

Regardless of market size and potential, it’s still a little hard to swallow the prospect of replacing a universal connector with a proprietary one. Call it a maybe-misguided principled stance. And yet, in a few years, I think we’ll look back on this as a quaint concern that needn’t have consumed so many angry words.

Update: This article previously stated that the cost to manufacturers for licensing Lightning was a rumoured $4 per connector. I’ve since learned that the royalty fee is $2 per product sold with any number of Lightning connectors. I have updated the article accordingly.

  1. On an unrelated note, the Journal happens to be one of the few publications that Apple occasionally provides off-the-record information to. Make of that what you will. ↥︎