Will Apple get tangled up in wireless headphones?

Last week, Apple announced the latest version of their flagship product. The iPhone 7 will begin shipping to customers on Friday and it will be the first to not have a headphone jack. The 3.5mm jack, which has been around since at least 1964, is the standard appearing on computers, music players, phones, some airline seats, and more. The standardized technology means you can use one set of headphones in any of those places without hassle (except for detangling the cords, of course).

But no more, says Apple. They used “courage” to describe this decision, a phrasing that has been soundly mocked. Courage probably isn’t the right word, but it’s certainly bold. This is a big risk that Apple hopes lays the foundation for additional changes that will lead to an inarguably better product. Of course, it might serve to further put the brakes on plateauing sales and a growing sense of meh.

Apple supporters are quick to point out that the doomsayers were wrong about Apple’s decision to remove floppy drives, CD drives, and ethernet ports. This feels like a different scenario, though. In previous cases, there was always something better to use instead (though I still wish the MacBook Pro I use at work had a wired ethernet port). Particularly by the time the optical drive was killed, USB drives and network services met the needs of the average consumer much better.

What’s the better option for the iPhone 7? Purchasing headphones that can only be used with Apple products, that require charging every few hours, that can’t be used while the phone is charging without an additional adapter? Will the technology used by these wireless headphones avoid the lag and disconnection issues that can frustrate Bluetooth device usage? Will noisy spectrum become an issue in crowded spaces like buses and subways? Will people be able to avoid losing them?

Apple’s previous removals proved to be successful enough that other manufacturers followed suit. But that success was possible in part because better standard solutions were available. This time, there’s no standard; it’s Apple or nothing. I don’t see that there’s a compelling enough story for the average consumer to support this as a long-term change. I’m no soothsayer, and I could end up complete wrong. But I bet Samsung really wishes they could have a do-over on the Galaxy Note 7’s battery: it could have been a great chance for them to take some of Apple’s market share.

4 thoughts on “Will Apple get tangled up in wireless headphones?

  1. A thought:

    Headphones of this class have three bands, separating the connection to ground, stereo left, stereo right and the third, which handles volume control, mic, waking the device, etc. This causes interop problems between wired for-iPhone headphones and for-Android headphones.

    By being the one to drop wired headphones, they can force the standard. If it’s sold and works, it follows that standard. As a guy with wires all over his desk, etc, I don’t look forward to this change, but I see the point of progress here.

  2. You may be overestimating Apple’s ability to force the standard. Firewire was an independent standard that Apple embraced and it went nowhere. More recently, Thunderbolt also went nowhere. Lightning remains proprietary and nobody seems to be in any rush to license it from Apple. It’s possible that Apple will push this as an industry standard, but history indicates that there are two standards: one Apple uses and one everyone else uses.

    I think the most likely outcome is that people who find the iPhone compelling will learn to deal with using wired headphones that connect via the Lightning port. I have a hard time seeing Apple re-adding the 3.5mm jack, so if wireless headphones are going to be the future, they’ll have to adapt them to meet the current weaknesses.

  3. I grant the point, and say I’m more looking for the silver lining than endorsing, but who needed Firewire when USB was fine? Who needed Thunderbolt? But everyone needs headphones to ignore the people around them.

    I think the Lightning port adapter bit might be how many (most) people handle it.

    I recall going to Radio Shack looking for headphones and being told how everyone was going wireless. This was 1-3 years ago, and no, they weren’t and aren’t, until the quality improves and the price comes down. (Better and more common today than then.)

    Yes, going to RS was my first mistake.

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