By John Gruber
Atoms: We are not selling shoes this time…
Steve Jobs, on stage with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher in 2010, explaining Apple’s decision not to support Adobe Flash on iOS:
We’re trying to make great products for people, and we have at least the courage of our convictions to say we don’t think this is part of what makes a great product, we’re going to leave it out. Some people are going to not like that, they’re going to call us names […] but we’re going to take the heat [and] instead focus our energy on these technologies which we think are in their ascendancy and we think are going to be the right technologies for customers. And you know what? They’re paying us to make those choices. […] If we succeed, they’ll buy them, and if we don’t, they won’t, and it’ll all work itself out.
As Ben Lovejoy points out in the article linked above, word-for-word this could apply to Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from its products. The video is worth watching, even after reading the words. Jobs was fired up about this.
I’ve chatted with a handful of friends this week who took umbrage at Phil Schiller’s “courage” explanation for why Apple removed the port. It’s also been a subject of mockery on Twitter. Starting around the 85:00 mark of the event, here’s what Schiller said:
Now some people have asked why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone. […] The reason to move on — I’m going to give you three of them, but it really comes down to one word: courage. The courage to move on, do something new, that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage.
I couldn’t disagree more with my aforementioned friends. You can argue that Jobs said it better. I think he did, too — particularly because Jobs emphasized the fact that they knew people were going to disagree, vociferously. (Jobs was one of the best communicators the world has ever seen, so that’s no ding against Schiller.) But Jobs and Schiller meant “courage” in the same way: having the courage to make a sure-to-be controversial decision when there is a non-controversial option, simply because they believe it to be the right thing to do in the long run.
When we think of controversial decisions, we tend to think of both sides as creating controversy. Choose A and the B proponents will be angry; choose B and the A proponents will be angry. But when it comes to controversial change of the status quo, it’s not like that. Only the people who are opposed to the change get outraged. Leave things as they are and there is no controversy. The people who aren’t outraged by the potential change are generally ambivalent about it, not in a fervor for it. Strong feelings against change on one side, and widespread ambivalence on the other. That’s why the status quo is generally so slow to change, in fields ranging from politics to technology.
There was outrage over Apple’s refusal to support Flash on iOS. Genuine controversy in the mainstream media. Most people saw it as competitive spite against Adobe, not a principled stand for a superior technology, superior experience, and open standards. There would have been no widespread outrage or controversy if Apple had caved and supported Flash on iOS. Android supported Flash for years, and there was no controversy. Now, I certainly would have excoriated Apple if they had caved on this. I understand that Flash is terrible technology. I could see the technical problems — performance, battery life, and perhaps most especially security and stability — Flash would cause on iOS. The technically proficient would have objected. But it wouldn’t have been controversial in a widespread, mainstream sense. What most people would have seen is that the video they wanted to watch on CNN.com would now play, however jankily, on their iPhone. What technically-informed Flash opponents could see is the big picture: that iOS’s profound popularity would slowly but surely force the entire content industry to support HTML5 H.264 video and drop support for Flash.
This was the choice Apple faced: support Flash and shut these critics up; or continue to not support Flash, take the criticism, and just wait a few years for everyone to forget about it, while former Flash proponents enjoy a better experience that they never would have gotten if Apple had listened to them.
I don’t feel nearly as strongly about the analog headphone jack as I did Flash. It’s not even close. Flash is garbage technology. To this day it’s not just bad, it’s dangerous. By not supporting Flash to push the industry toward HTML5, Apple was omitting something terrible (but incredibly popular) to push the industry toward something much better. The analog headphone jack isn’t bad. It just isn’t good, either. But it is popular — more popular than Flash Player even. Wireless — if it works as smoothly as AirPods are advertised — is good. Flash/HTML5 was bad/good. Analog jack/AirPods is meh/good.
That said, the same principle stands: Apple faced a choice between doing something that they knew would be controversial, that they knew would generate genuine outrage, but which would lead to everyone having a better experience in the long run (and for early adopters, a better experience as soon as they start using their AirPods) — or, they could have just kept including a fucking headphone jack and no one would have raised an eyebrow, at the expense of a slower adoption rate of wireless headphones.
Websites could have dropped support for Flash and moved to HTML5 even if Apple had supported Flash on iOS. But most wouldn’t have. That’s just not how the world works. At most media companies, “We should spend the money to update our systems to replace Flash with HTML5 because it’s a better experience, even though what we have now works,” isn’t going to fly. “We should spend the money to update our systems to replace Flash with HTML5 because we are losing a massive and lucrative audience that can’t play Flash because they’re using iOS devices” — that’s an argument that flies.
Not supporting Flash on iOS in any way, shape, or form was a strong push. Removing the headphone jack but including both Lightning ear buds and a legacy adapter is a nudge. But the nudge will help drive adoption of wireless headphones. In the alternate universe where Apple introduced the exact same AirPods and W1-powered Beats headphones but kept the analog audio port on the iPhone 7, adoption of those wireless headphones would be slower. I think a lot slower. More people would have a worse experience on a daily basis, dealing with tangled cords and all the other hassles of having your ears tethered to a device. Battery life would be slightly worse, too. Maybe the iPhone 7 still wouldn’t have optical image stabilization. But in that universe, no one is complaining about the iPhone headphone jack.
Few companies other than Apple make decisions that they know will provoke outrage just because they think it’s the right thing to do. Most companies will do the wrong thing to avoid controversy. Google certainly knew full well how awful Flash was when they supported it in Android. They did that not just to quell demands from ill-informed Android users who wanted Flash, but also perhaps to have a competitive advantage over iOS, by appealing to whatever segment of the mass market was annoyed by Apple’s refusal to budge on Flash. But still, it’s about choosing between unpopular-but-correct and popular-but-wrong.
We, as a species, are hooked up to focus on the short run, and we’re hooked up to seek popularity and avoid criticism. Choosing to do what you know will be unpopular in the short run but you believe will prove correct in the long run takes courage. Courage of one’s convictions, not courage running into a burning building to save a life, but courage nonetheless.