Last week I witnessed the death of an old friend when Apple announced the iPhone 7. In case you hadn’t heard, the latest iteration of Apple’s all-in-one phone/music player/computer has eliminated the 3.5mm headphone jack, a long-present component on almost electronic device that outputs audio or video. Audiophiles are up in arms about this omission and I, too, will miss this stalwart orifice for sound, but not as much as you would think.
The technology behind the 3.5mm stereo jack is over 100 years old. It’s precursor, the ¼” jack, was initially used in telephone switchboards starting in 1878. As technology progressed, things got smaller, and the 3.5mm jack hit its stride when transistor radios became popular in the 1950’s. Professional headphones all run off the ¼” jack and most come with an adapter to 3.5mm for use in smaller devices like Sony Walkmans (remember those?), iPods, and iPhones.
When I heard the final announcement about the new headphones utilizing the Lightning port of the iPhone, I tried to remember the last time I used a pair of wired headphones with my iPhone or iPad. It has been well over a year since I have plugged in a set of headphones to anything. Bluetooth headphones and speakers have taken over as my output devices, when I’m not streaming audio via WiFi to my home entertainment system. Do these wireless speakers sound worse than their wired counterparts? To a professional or audiophile, most certainly. To a casual listener like myself and the other 90% of us, you can’t tell the difference, in my honest opinion.
Apple has a history of “prematurely” killing off peripherals and connectors, drawing the ire of passionate fan bases. However, looking back at most of these exclusions and you can see that Apple is a great prognosticator for tech that is ready to be put to pasture. The 3.5” floppy drive and the optical drive both saw their demise at the hands of the Cupertino-based tech giant. Both technologies are now defunct or nearing extinction due to their utility being negated by superior technologies. Web content and streaming is hammering the final nail in the coffin for physical media like CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs. Apple just saw it coming a long time ago, as they were pioneering the pay-to-download and stream model.
The only thing that my headphone jack has seen use for in the past year is a credit card reader. I would imagine that some companies will be scrambling to adapt to Apple’s change-up, but as always, this will drive innovation. Yes, there will be a need for an adapter to use traditional headphones, and yes, Apple will be making money on those. However, their push towards making devices thinner, smaller, and more efficient has brought us where we are today.
Less than 35 years ago the first cellular phone became commercially available and fit in a small suitcase, and now, we carry computers in our pockets that we can talk to, that talk to us, and tether us to each other on a global scale. We use these devices wirelessly, and eliminating even more wires from our lives is the natural progression. Apple is leading the drive to a wireless existence, and like it or not, we’re all being led down this road.