Friday 30 September 2016

Why Apple could be right to ditch the iPhone's headphone jack

James Titcomb

Published 15/08/2016 | 08:11

Apple chief executive Tim Cook
Apple chief executive Tim Cook

Life isn’t easy at the top. And when your profits totalled $53bn (£41bn) last year there aren’t many above you in the pecking order. So spare a brief thought for the bosses at Apple who, faced with a sales decline the size of which they haven’t seen for 15 years, are now tasked with inventing yet another reason for their fans to splash a week’s wages or more on a new gadget.

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For that is the task facing Tim Cook and co when, next month, Apple releases the 10th generation of the iPhone. The annual launch event is a key date in any techie’s calendar, even if many argue that the annual upgrades have become less exciting in recent years since most of the low hanging fruit – a bigger screen, downloadable apps, a better camera – have already been plucked, and consumers’ attention shifts to new software instead.

This year, though, is different. Apple is told every year that its innovative streak is waning, but it has always been able to point to improving iPhone sales. Now they are diminishing for the first time. The company is hardly about to re-mortgage the estate of course, but investors would certainly like sales to start heading north again after two quarters of decline.

Given that, the casual observer might take a cursory look at the Apple rumour mill and think the pressure has gone to executives’ heads. The flurry of leaks and whispers, which reaches fever pitch at this time of year, suggests that the next iPhone will have few cosmetic changes to get excited about. It will look largely the same as the last two years’ models, and not (that we know of) have a killer feature entice people to upgrade such as a fingerprint reader or Siri assistant.

Instead, it appears, the defining feature of the “iPhone 7” will instead be removing a key feature of not only every iPhone since 2007 but that has been a fixture in consumer electronics since the Sony Walkman made portable music possible in 1979: the humble headphone jack, which every set of headphones in the world supports.

Instead, it will encourage listeners to use either headphones that connect via the phone’s charging port or wirelessly. In one fell swoop Apple will, if we are to believe the hype machine, render millions of pairs of headphones, many of them costing hundreds of pounds, obsolete (or at least require them to use a fiddly dongle).

Even before the new phone is actually announced, this has generated fierce resistance. 300,000 people have signed a petition urging the company to change its mind. And this is before most people even know it is happening. Imagine the response when it becomes official.

Given that Apple is trying to reverse its first sales decline in 13 years, such a controversial move might it is not in the company’s best interest. But a look at its history shows it is a move right out of the Apple playbook.

The 3.5mm headphone port – which appears on every computer, mp3 player and almost every smartphone – is more than 50 years old. It is based on technology that was invented in the 19th century. If you were to build a smartphone and set of headphones from scratch today, without any regard for current standards, you certainly wouldn’t invent the analogue port found on today’s iPhone.

Apple has controversially dropped several technologies over the years: The laptop DVD drive, removable phone batteries, the floppy disk, Adobe Flash. Apple was ahead of the market in getting rid of all of these, allowing engineering improvements such as thinner devices or bigger batteries. With all of them, the transition was painful, but none of them do we really miss now, and Apple has.

I would be that in a couple of years, the same is likely to be true of the headphone jack, which are likely to be replaced by less-fiddly wireless technology. It’s the sort of move that Apple, which tends to be followed by the rest of its field, is uniquely capable of pulling off. The analysts, at least, don’t believe it will be a step too far: UBS forecasts sales rising by 5pc next year, and 18pc the one after that.

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