Will Apple alienate iPhone fans by ditching the headphone jack?

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FNF2
Apple could be about to kill another technology.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple has famously killed popular technologies when it believes they’re past their best — and it could be gearing up to kill one more. According to recent rumors, next year’s iPhone 7 will ship without the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of a thinner form factor.

Friday-Night-Fights-bug-2Understandably, a lot of fans are unhappy about that prospect, which would mean all our existing headphones wouldn’t be compatible with the next iPhone — at least not without a (pricey) adapter. But could it be a move that pays off in the long run? Are there pros that outweigh the cons?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac as we battle it out over these questions and more!

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl (Writer, Cult of Mac): Now unlike some of the things we debate, I can totally see the other side of the argument here.

I’d never suggest that the 3.5mm headphone jack is worth keeping just because things have been that way for the past 60 years. The best tech “disrupters” — Steve Jobs among them — have shown that the surest way to break ground is by having no sentimental attachment to history. Things may be as they are for a reason, but the reason shouldn’t be the tautological “they’ve always been like that.” Apple’s always been one of the first companies to ditch components it deems to be on the wrong side of history — and 99 percent of the time it’s exactly right.

I also realize that, from a business perspective — particularly in the short term — Apple’s going to up its own headphone sales by switching to a new standard different from 99 percent of the rest of the market. It’s a great way of making extra cash, much as the lack of, say, a DVD player on the iMac drives iTunes sales by giving people less options for watching movies. Finally, we’ll get a thinner iPhone out of it.

So what possible argument could I have? Well, let’s start with the fact that there are a lot of audiophiles out there for whom high quality audio is a major issue, and who won’t be catered for by Apple. Long term, I’m sure other manufacturers will (be forced to) cater to Apple’s new standard, but what about people who have already spent more than the cost of an iPhone buying a good set of headphones? And those who will want to in the immediate future? There’s definitely no guarantee that Apple will cater to this market in a hurry. Beats headphones have never been the audiophile’s headphones of choice, and even after owning the company for well over a year Apple hasn’t improved the sound quality of the bass-heavy headphones.

And don’t even get me started on Bluetooth headphones.

From a consumer perspective, is it really worth bringing about this change purely to get an iPhone that’s thinner than the (arguably) already too thin handset we’ve got? I’m not sure it is. But I’m sure you’ll disagree, Killian.

Philips' Fidelio headphones are already Lightning-compatible.
Philips’ Fidelio headphones are already Lightning-compatible.
Photo: Philips

Killian-FNFKillian Bell (Writer, Cult of Android): I know ditching the headphone jack is going to upset a lot of people, but Apple has proven over and over again that it doesn’t mind pissing people off for a short time to deliver a greater product that’s better equipped for the future.

If Apple does take this step, it will push Lightning-compatible headphones and wireless Bluetooth headphones — which are more affordable than ever. But just as it did when it made the switch from 30-pin to Lightning, it will also offer an adapter that will let you plug existing headphones into that Lightning port. We’ll likely see third-party alternatives, too.

This will bring in additional revenue, and ensure Apple doesn’t completely alienate those customers who already own decent headphones they don’t want to replace. Yes, headphone manufacturers will have to design new products that are Lightning-compatible — but when headphone sales shoot through the roof after iPhone 7 goes on sale, they won’t be complaining.

I also believe that Apple has more than just its obsession with thinness in mind here; a slimmer iPhone isn’t the only benefit that could come from ditching the headphone jack.

Taking this step could free up space inside the iPhone that could be used for other components. Apple could make the iPhone’s battery slightly bigger, or even add things we haven’t had before. Recent rumors have claimed it is currently testing an iPhone 7 prototype with two rear-facing cameras.

The move could also make it easier for Apple to make the iPhone more water-resistant. I know other manufacturers have produced water-resistant devices with headphone jacks, but it’s still a gaping hole in the bottom of the device that isn’t ideal.

I’m sure there are other benefits I’m missing, too. Again, I believe the short-term frustration of adapting to iPhone life without a headphone jack will be worth the long-term advantages.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: The problem is that, unlike some of the other standards that Apple has killed over the years — floppy drives, for instance — the headphone jack isn’t a dying technology, and it’s one that continues to be used by all of us every day. I’m just not convinced there’s a good reason to get rid of it — and just speaking from personal experience, I’m betting Apple would use the saved space to make the iPhone slimmer rather than to greatly improve battery life.

You make an interesting point about the water-resistant future of iPhones, and that’s something Apple has been working toward recently, but if it can come up with clever ways to make the Lightning and speaker ports water-tight, surely it could do the same for the headphone jack.

Don’t get me wrong: Apple’s riding a massive wave of success and no-one’s going to argue that ditching the current headphone port is going to be what pushes the Cupertino empire to collapse, but I just can’t see any legitimate positives that aren’t massively outweighed by negatives. This would have a bigger impact than some of the standards Apple has killed, would leave a nasty taste in many users’ mouths — and may even make some think twice about upgrading.

There’s just no real upside to it.

Isn't it time we waved goodbye to this?
Isn’t it time we waved goodbye to this?
Photo: Flickr/krheesy. (CC-licensed)

Killian-FNFKillian: Well, I’ve just given you several good upsides — and explained how simple it will be to live without a built-in headphone jack, either by using Lightning-compatible headphones, wireless Bluetooth headphones, or an adapter. Yes, it will be a pain at first — and I know my thoughts won’t go down well with the vast majority of iPhone fans — but we’ll get over it.

I appreciate that the headphone jack isn’t a dying technology — at least not until Apple kills it — but neither were buttons before Apple decided the iPhone didn’t need them. And yes, Apple would use this move to make the iPhone thinner, because its chassis wouldn’t need to accommodate that large port — but it would also be left with a gaping hole inside the device that could be used for something else. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be thinner and have a second rear-facing camera.

We’ve laid down our thoughts on this subject now, so how about we turn it over to the readers here.

Do you see the advantages in ditching the headphone jack, or do you think Apple would be making a big mistake if it doesn’t put one in a future iPhone?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?