iPhone 7: Another Brick in the Wall

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have been announced to great fanfare and controversy; the latter over the removal of the standard 3.5 mm headphone jack port from the phone. That leaves only Apple’s proprietary lightning port as the sole, physical, input/output port on the phone. This is not a move that upgrades the music experience on the iPhone 7s.

I am not an Apple user. Their products are excellent, and in many cases physically beautiful. I lusted after an iPod when they were first announced, as I had bought the Diamond Rio MP3 player when it came out (still have it, too) and was embracing the digital music revolution. But I could never justify buying an Apple product back then, because they were always more expensive than other, and of equal capability gadgets.

So I’m not down on Apple gadgets, but nowadays I cannot abide the forced user lock-in that comes with any of their products (possibly excluding a Mac desktop) – that famed walled garden. I don’t deny that they have a right to try and lock users into buying more and more of their equipment and software; they’re a company out to make profit. As a user, I don’t like the feeling of being so dependent on a company that it might one day be an issue if that company stumbles and goes out of business. Like Palm: I did buy into Palm, and frantically tried to free my digital calendar and contacts as that company went kaput. Palm didn’t help their users leave, either.

I use Windows, Android, and Linux, spreading my risk by sticking to companies that support all three platforms and allow me to move my data at will. I also favor open-source software, especially if it runs on Windows, Linux, and even Android and Mac.

What annoys me about the iPhone 7 jack-less debate is the artificial nature of it. Pundits on both sides argue the merits of Apple’s decision, but never comment on the obvious reason it was excluded: control. I know a LOT about marketing, and all of the debates are over Apple’s marketing spin about why they took it out: the wireless future, waterproofing the phone, higher quality sound, more internal room, better user experience. All of that is marketing bullsh*t. It is another brick in their walled-off garden of user lock-in.

Another Brick in Apple's Wall
Another Brick in Apple’s Wall

I’m not a techie, but I’ve read enough to know that the standard headphone jack is capable of high-quality music output, and currently superior to Bluetooth according to most audio experts. I also know enough that, even when the music starts out as digital, at some point it is converted to analog because, you know, sound waves are pretty analog. There is no digital binary audio input into the brain; sound still has to go through those darned analog ears. So whether the digital analog converter (DAC) is in the phone or in the headphones, there has to be one. With the standard jack it is in the phone.

Yes, the standard jack and DAC take up some space. It is another open port into the phone. Both of those reasons for eliminating it are really superfluous; the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is waterproof with a headphone jack, and is 7.9 mm thick. The iPhone 7 Plus is 7.3 mm thick; 0.6 mm is almost negligible. The iPhone 7s are not significantly smaller than the 6s phones; Apple used the extra space to add battery capacity (and that was a very nice thing for Apple to do).

If cords were the issue (and you can use Bluetooth headphones with a phone that has a headphone jack), then why didn’t Apple make the iPhone 7s charge wirelessly, and eliminate all ports? A lot of buyers would be turned off because they would have to buy wireless chargers, and carry one with them always (car, travel, etc.). The inconvenience would’ve been astronomical; still, Apple pundits seem to dismiss the large inconvenience of having to use Bluetooth headphones, use an adapter, or buy headphones with Apple’s proprietary lightning jack. At this moment the majority of people don’t own that stuff, yet the pundits insist that buyers should put up with any hassle because, you know, the future and all of that. Hey, shouldn’t they also have to grin-and-bear it with wireless charging for, you know, the future and all of that?

I suspect Apple hasn’t gone with wireless charging because they don’t have a proprietary protocol yet. They won’t adopt the current standards, because those are standards being used by other companies. And yes, I think even Apple engineers and designers know it is too soon for such a move.

Apple does have a proprietary protocol for digital output: their lightning port. They also added a proprietary “W1” chip to make their Bluetooth headphones work “better” than other, run-of-the-mill Bluetooth headphones with the iPhone 7s. Sure, you can use other manufacturers’ wireless cans, but you won’t get the full Apple experience. All of you Bluetooth headphone owners with older iPhones will – gosh! – just have to upgrade those too.

Since the iPod, Apple has been about the Apple experience, making it so that using other products with theirs is more and more difficult. The iPod had to have iTunes; and they still use iTunes to control what data goes into your device if you connect it with wires. Apple has become more and more controlling over the years; even iOS is more locked down and locked in than macOS, which is why they are so focused on developing it. The 3.5 mm jack was a standard they did not, and could not control.

Pundits point to other past Apple moves: eliminating the floppy disk drive, CD/DVD drives, right mouse buttons, etc., etc., and how that changed the industry. With floppy disk drives, Apple was right on time, not ahead; CDs and DVDs were widely available and had much more capacity. On the others – sorry, there are a lot of PCs and laptops out there that have optical disk drives, and other operating systems use the right-mouse button systemically. My PC has a DVD drive and I need it, and my mouse is a standard two-button with a wheel – and I use its capabilities to the fullest extent. I’ve had to buy an external DVD drive for my family, because their laptops don’t have them, but old photos, some programs, and even some music are still to be found only on CDs or DVDs. Ditto SD card drives and USB ports. Apple (and copycat manufacturers) just inconvenienced their customers in the name of building for the future when they removed that stuff.

There aren’t better technological solutions in the market over wired headphones that have equal or better audio. None, zero, zip, nada. The near total majority of audio equipment on the market today has the 3.5 mm jack, and the iPhone 7s are now incompatible with all of them. Almost no audio equipment has a lightning jack. Removing the 3.5 mm port and forcing a proprietary port in its place is not the equivalent of replacing the floppy disk drive with the optical disk drive; the latter move was because optical disk drives were universally better, used by other manufacturers, and readily available. iPhone 7 users have to use more stuff to get an equal or inferior audio experience – that is not progress. It will be fun to see all of those Square users trying to swipe cards while the unit dangles helplessly off of an adapter dongle.

Apple now controls the sole port on their phones, and how it will be used. That is what this move is about. They will exert that control in the future to make it so one must buy even more Apple stuff to have a good experience. Yeah, they have that right. I’m just not going to buy into it; wired headphones and speakers are just too convenient, and the option of using them is nice, without having to worry what jack is on them.

I will wait for the wireless future that improves my experience and is more convenient. Removing the 3.5 mm headphone jack was just another brick in their wall.

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