Headphone Jacks Are the New Floppy Drives

Nilay Patel, “Taking the Headphone Jack Off Phones Is User-Hostile and Stupid”:

But just face facts: ditching the headphone jack on phones makes them worse, in extremely obvious ways. Let’s count them!

And let’s compare them to arguments against removing floppy drives from the iMac in 1998.

1. Digital audio means DRM audio

Restricting audio output to a purely digital connection means that music publishers and streaming companies can start to insist on digital copyright enforcement mechanisms. We moved our video systems to HDMI and got HDCP, remember? Copyright enforcement technology never stops piracy and always hurts the people who most rely on legal fair use, but you can bet the music industry is going to start cracking down on “unauthorized” playback and recording devices anyway.

I’m not familiar with how people are taking advantage of the “analog loophole” to do things with audio out of the iPhone headphone port that would be forbidden using the digital Lightning port, but now seems like a good time to raise the big question: Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when? Maybe now is the wrong time, and Apple is making a mistake. I don’t know. None of us outside the company seem to know, because all that has leaked is that the new iPhone won’t have the port, with no explanation why. But I say at some point it will go away, and now seems like it might be the right time. Also, historically, Apple has proven to be very good at timing the removal of established legacy ports.

Patel misses the bigger problem. It’s not enforcement of DRM on audio playback. It’s enforcement of the MFi Program for certifying hardware that uses the Lightning port. Right now any headphone maker in the world can make any headphones they want for the standard jack. Not so with the Lightning port.

We deal with DRM when it comes to video because we generally don’t rewatch and take TV shows and movies with us, but you will rue the day Apple decided to make the iPhone another 1mm thinner the instant you get a “playback device not supported” message. Winter is coming.

As an aside, whatever the merits of this decision, it’s not about device thinness. The iPhone 6 is the thinnest iPhone to date at 6.9mm. The iPod Touch has a headphone jack and is just 6.1mm thick. The iPod Nano: 5.4mm. The analog headphone jack is more costly in terms of depth than thickness.

2. Wireless headphones and speakers are fine, not great

Totally agree. But the rumor is that the new iPhone will ship with wired Lightning earbuds.

3. Dongles are stupid, especially when they require other dongles

External floppy drives sucked too.

4. Ditching a deeply established standard will disproportionately impact accessibility

The traditional headphone jack is a standard for a reason — it works. It works so well that an entire ecosystem of other kinds of devices has built up around it, and millions of people have access to compatible devices at every conceivable price point. The headphone jack might be less good on some metrics than Lightning or USB-C audio, but it is spectacularly better than anything else in the world at being accessible, enabling, open, and democratizing.

Apple is the company that brought us the 30-pin and Lightning ports, and whose iPhones, iPods, and iPads have never had USB ports. “Enabling, open, and democratizing” have never been high on Apple’s list of priorities for external ports. They’re on the list, to be sure. Just not high on the list.

5. Making Android and iPhone headphones incompatible is so incredibly arrogant and stupid there’s not even explanatory text under this one

Why would Apple care about headphone compatibility with Android? If Apple gave two shits about port compatibility with Android, iPhones would have Micro-USB ports. In 1998 people used floppy drives extensively for sneaker-netting files between Macs and PCs. That didn’t stop Apple from dropping it.

The incompatibility that matters is with Apple’s own devices, particularly MacBooks. Presumably Apple’s Lightning earbuds will work on iPads, too. But it’s going to suck having to use different headphones (or a dongle) for the Mac than you use with your iOS devices.1 But again, this is no different than the transition from 30-pin to Lightning. You have to start somewhere. (Unless you believe Apple should stick with the analog headphone jack as we know it forever — but I told you people to stop reading way back at the top.)

6. No one is asking for this

Raise your hand if the thing you wanted most from your next phone was either fewer ports or more dongles.

I didn’t think so. You wanted better battery life, didn’t you? Everyone just wants better battery life.

“No one” asked for the iMac to remove the floppy drive or switch from ADB ports to USB (at a time when PCs weren’t shipping with USB either, which meant few — I mean really few — existing USB peripherals on the market). There was a huge outcry when the iPhone 5 dumped the proprietary-but-ubiquitous 30-pin port for the proprietary-and-all-new Lightning port. MacBook Air fans are still complaining about the new MacBook’s solitary USB-C port.

This is how it goes. If it weren’t for Apple we’d probably still be using computers with VGA and serial ports. The essence of Apple is that they make design decisions “no one asked for”.

And as for battery life, surely removing the deep headphone socket can only leave more room for a larger battery.

Vote with your dollars.

We shall see. But I bet people will do just that. And in five years we’ll look at analog headphone jacks the way we look at all the other legacy ports we’ve abandoned.


  1. Will MacBooks ship with a Lightning port in lieu of a headphone jack? If so, will they ship with headphones? (Probably not, I say. Cough up the extra $29 for a new pair of Apple EarPods.) Is this why we haven’t seen new MacBook Pros yet — because they’re waiting for the new iPhone, so that both can go Lightning-for-audio at the same time? Perhaps. ↩︎

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