When one eighth of an inch becomes the difference between success and failure?

Patent No. 9,142,925 submitted by Apple in 2015 for a Patent No. 9,142,925 submitted by Apple in 2015 for a “flat-jack” Image credit AppleInsider

A little over a week after the rumours broke of the loss of the 3.5mm headphone jack from the 2016 Apple iPhone range, and an online petition calling for Apple to confirm the inclusion of the ubiquitous socket in their next product release has reached nearly a quarter of a million supporters.

Having based my last article on the need for standards (albeit front-end standards), I was a slightly averse to covering the topic again so quickly – but having read the online furore on the subject, I can’t help but want to bring together the debate into one place.

As the removal of the headphone jack from the upcoming product range hasn’t been officially confirmed, all this is mere speculation; but if true – their rationale (and my rebuttals) would follow along these lines:

We need to save space in the phone chassis and we want to make new devices thinner.

While device manufacturers continue to innovate to make phones and other portable devices smaller and thinner, this is done at the expense of battery capacity. Most users would rather have a slightly thicker device with a greater battery life and so making the phone a bit thinner really isn’t necessary. I often wonder how long my phone would last if it was the size of my old Nokia 3210?

The phone jack is an outdated technology (it’s been around since 1878).

The humble headphone jack might be about as low-tech as it gets, but because it’s been around for so long it’s been the de facto standard for the input and output of casual audio. Its ubiquitous compatibility with virtually all devices surely is its killer advantage over all alternatives?

The Lightning connector can provide the same functionality, and additional features.

While other ports have allowed for the transportation of audio with additional features (Optical Audio ports being one such example) – backwards compatibility has always been a key consideration. Lightning or other connectors might provide higher fidelity audio – but why not provide choice to consumers, rather than restrictions?

By restricting third-party device connectivity, we can wield stronger control over our supply chain – particularly from the perspective of the ethical sourcing of materials and workers’ rights.

It’s admirable that Apple are keen to use their “Made for iPhone” (MFi) licensing programme to enforce better ethical standards in their supply chain, but is this really the best way to achieve it? If Apple had announced that they were going to donate the proceeds from the MFi programme to ensure better working conditions for every member of its supply chain, then perhaps they would get better support?

Regardless of the merits of such an endeavour, the problem of a format-switch such as this is that once the iPhone 7 reaches the second-hand market in the 3-5 year time horizon, those second-hand buyers particularly in the developing world will be forced to upgrade their accessories along with their handset. This upgrade barrier inevitably widens the rift between the digital “haves” and “have-nots” and arguably creates greater negative social impact than improvements in supply chain ethics might resolve.

We’re a pioneer of spotting the demise of legacy technologies, and have successfully retired other outdated components such as Floppy and Optical Drives (CD/ DVD ROMs), “D-SUB” ports (i.e. Serial, Parallel, and VGA), and even recently USB sockets from our product range in favour of more modern alternatives.

There is some truth in the argument that Apple has indeed been visionary in the early abandonment of legacy technologies, but there is a big difference between phasing out the Floppy Disc in favour of simply an Optical Drive, or the internal Optical Drive for an externally connected USB version; and removing something for which no alternative industry standard has been settled upon.

To me, this is my central criticism – aside from some misplaced nostalgia, I have no objection whatsoever for the removal of legacy connectivity from technology – so long as a viable alternative standard has been agreed upon by the industry as a whole. Almost every other connector (USB, VGA, HDMI etc) launch and implementation are agreed upon by industry consortiums where the format specifications are agreed upon before being rolled out.

While it’s moderately irritating for Apple to have their own proprietary connector for charging their phones (the rest of the world sensibly has united around the USB standard and its multiple variants), headphones and their 3.5mm TRS plugs are used by virtually all devices that input or output audio (from my radio in my car to my computer) and by all manufacturers. Moving to Apple’s proprietary audio connectivity standard is a mistake for manufacturers and consumers alike, as those of us who bought devices with embedded 30-pin Apple docks (such as the Bose SoundDock or even the Smart Car “i-move”) will testify.

Even if the industry does settle on the Lightning connector in 2016 for universal device connectivity – it’s a dangerous precedent for any single manufacturer to be allowed to dictate a format. Thankfully, history is littered with failed examples of attempts like this (does anyone remember what happened to IBM’s MCA bus)?

If people still want to attach “old fashioned” analogue headphones, they can use a simple adapter.

Or we can simply switch phone platform choice to another manufacturer who embraces interoperability, protocols, and standards…

I personally still cherish my iPhone 4S because my investment in various docks and connectors on the old 30-pin format and in cradles based on the former standard iPhone/iPod size was so great as to create a barrier for me to upgrade.

Now, my only barrier to upgrading is my investment in apps on the App Store. If Google or Microsoft could take this pain away, then removal of the headphone jack could be one of Apple’s costliest mistakes.

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