iPhone 7, Apple and the legacy of the 3.5mm jack

There’s a lot of consternation over Apple’s decision to entirely remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from iPhone 7, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of the oldest tech standards we have known, it’s small and discreet and capable of being placed on the smallest devices, and there are thousands upon thousands of headphones with price ranges from a few dollars all the way up to four-figure sums. The 3.5mm jack has been with us on the Walkman, the Game Boy, and of course the iPod.

The ubiquity of the 3.5mm jack has been taken for granted in most electronic devices, but one seldom-observed fact is that until the advent of the smartphone age it was rarely found on mobile phones. Before iPhone there was little expectation on phones to be your main music player (though not for want of trying) and for the most popular phones pre-2007 – StarTAC, RAZR, LG Chocolate, Nokia 3310 – the emphasis was on either being very small and thin, or being affordable bricks. For these reasons very few phones supported the 3.5mm jack, and those with MP3 playback had proprietary connectors for headphones which often lacked compatibility with future models. This, along with other more important factors (slow and fiddly music players on phones, lacklustre music management software on the PC side, insufficient storage for MP3 files, etc) meant people rarely tried to listen to music on their phones, and a sizable number opted to carry around iPods as well.

This all changed when the original iPhone was introduced. Good music player was finally integrated into our phones, and what’s more, Apple ensured that the 3.5mm jack which graced every iPod model would be in every iPhone going forward. Android OEMs did the same, so that almost all smartphones (and by extension, almost all phones today) have the 3.5mm jack.

iPhone is credited with creating or transforming several industries: telephony, publishing, broadcasting and media, mobile apps, gaming, and so on. But one industry which also was profoundly energized, and which is often left out of such lists, is the headphones industry. Before 2007, high-end headphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs) were a very niche market, and manufacturers produced few models that had price tags over $2-300. For example, for many years Shure’s only $200-plus consumer headphones were the E4C and E5C (both IEMs), and they did not make any full-size consumer headphones; by contrast, Shure’s SE846, released in 2014, retails for $1,000, something that was unthinkable a decade ago. Sony had no IEMs above $200 and their high-end headphones consisted of the likes of SA3000 and SA5000 which had 1/4 inch jacks as standards and were very much indoor headphones to be used with amps; today the online Sony Store shows at least 5 different IEM models costing $200 or more. Sennheiser didn’t have any high-end IEMs until the release of IE8 in 2008, and their popular Momentum and Urbanite portable headphone lineups didn’t come into being until after 2010; just counting the IEMs Sennheiser now sells 5 models, including the $800 IE800. Most tellingly, Beats – the biggest beneficiary of this revolution – only came into being 1 year before iPhone’s introduction and became a billion-dollar concern on the back of smartphones before being acquired by Apple. The list goes on, but the main point here is that the market for the sort of high-priced portable headphones you see everywhere today (even in bookstores, local marts and underground popup stores) was made possible only by the fact that 3.5mm jacks were now in the pockets of billions of people, as opposed to millions before the smartphone revolution kickstarted by iPhone.

It’s a long-winded way of saying two things. First, while the 3.5mm jack has been around for a very long time, it’s only really been in our phones for less than ten years, though it feels like it’s been there for much longer. Two, Apple has played arguably the leading part in the very integration – and proliferation – of the feature that they are now taking away from their flagship product.

So what does that all mean? Nothing much, I guess, except that Apple probably deserve more of a benefit of the doubt than people are giving them at present. Apple didn’t make life easy for themselves with how they presented the news: the typically self-absorbed ‘courage’ rhetoric1 was always going to rub people up the wrong way, and they sadly contradicted themselves by proclaiming their vision for a wireless future but then bundling only the wired Lightning EarPods. But the benefits of more space afforded by the removal – more battery, waterproofing, better internal components placement – are not insignificant. Moreover, while some people are outraged by what they consider a violation of something sacrosanct, the fact is that the 3.5mm jack being on everyone’s phones by default is a fairly recent phenomenon. As the original iPhone represented a change in how we listen to music, iPhone 7 represents another, and while it will take work on both ends of the wireless connection – for the phone to resolve connection quickly and painlessly and the receiver to be intuitive and convenient to use, on top of additional functionality2 that are currently not available on bluetooth headphones – whoever gets it right stands to benefit significantly – and Apple has made a bet that it’s worth making the headstart at the expense of near-term backlash and ridicule.

  1. Courage is what it has taken to remove the jack, but not the reason for it
  2. This is something Apple is promising with the AirPods and the W1 chip.

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