Why I’m buying an iPhone 7 Plus, with mixed feelings about it

When I was 18, I became the presenter of an information line for blind people in New Zealand. This predates the mainstreaming of the Internet, so it was a way for blind people to dial a number, hear a recorded message about the latest goings on in the blind community, then leave a message that would be played on next week’s episode. It was kind of like a podcast delivered by phone, long before podcasts were invented.

After I’d been doing this for a while, I attended a conference at which a blind woman who had a significant hearing disability collared me and told me that I needed to sound more like the BBC when I did these bulletins. My teenage self brushed her off abruptly and said that I was a New Zealander, talked like a New Zealander, and was proud of it. I could tell I had offended her.

Of course, what she was really trying to get across to me was that I should enunciate more clearly, so she could consume the information like everyone else.

Fast-forward to November 2015, and boy, I got the karma. Learning from a very reliable source that Apple was seriously contemplating removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, I wrote a blog post outlining why this would be a big deal to some of us who wear hearing aid technology, and why it might even be a big deal for a wider group as well. I’m not going to rehash those arguments yet again, but you can click through to the post to see that sadly, my predictions were accurate. I take no pride in saying that. This is an instance where I’d love to have been dead wrong.

When I published this post, it was met with a mixture of ridicule, accusations of scaremongering, and on the positive side, people who vowed to take a few minutes to send a message via Apple’s feedback form, even if they felt it didn’t affect them. This latter group had sufficient concern and empathy to know that if the world is less accessible for a group of us, it’s a less accessible world overall, and that’s not a good thing.

While I called for the retention of the headphone jack, I considered this outcome highly unlikely. But having conducted advocacy campaigns for nearly 30 years, some highly successful, some a dismal failure, I know you need to go in with your most desired outcome, and always be ready to find middle ground. It was my hope that, if the blind community could unite behind the needs of deaf blind people, many of whom have difficulty participating in forums such as this, we may at least get an adapter that accommodates the fact that VoiceOver users keep their phone’s audio going for longer. That has an impact on battery life, and it means that it’s particularly important to be able to use your device with something wired connected to a headphone output while the device charges.

Even if the removal of the headphone jack had been irrevocable by November 2015 when I started to blog about this, as someone with product management experience, I was confident that we had a lot more time to influence the adapter that might be included in the box.

Yesterday, Apple announced that yes, they were indeed removing the headphone jack, and sadly as I predicted, the adapter they’ll include in the box will not allow you to charge your iPhone while you listen to wired headphones.

There are a number of ways to work around this, but sadly, they all involve purchasing something in addition to the iPhone you just bought – a big ticket item in the budgets of many deaf blind people. So in that respect alone, they are all a retrograde step.

The Belkin Lightning Audio + Charge Rock Star is a $40 USD adapter that contains a Lightning plug that connects to the single Lightning port the iPhone 7 now contains. Hanging off the cable are two female Lightning connectors. You can plug a cable into one to charge your phone, and another Lightning device in the other. In the case of many hearing aid or cochlea implant wearers, that will mean you’ll have to plug Apple’s provided Lightning to 3.5 adapter into one of the Lightning ports, then your cable into the 3.5 mm jack that is dangling off it. So it could be a bit of cable spaghetti, but it is a solution that will I think work for most people if you’re able to shell out for the adapter, and take care with all the cables.

Based on all the comments I’ve read from sighted people on the desire they have to use wired headphones while they charge, I’m hopeful there’ll be yet another third-party accessory that will eliminate the second female Lightning connector in favour of a 3.5 connector. That will be one less cable to disentangle.

Those of you who listened to the recap of the Apple event on The Blind Side with Jeff Bishop, David Woodbridge and me may have heard this one already. David pointed out that the Apple Battery Case for the iPhone will give your phone a recharge, and it contains its own Lightning port. This means that if you want to use your phone with wired headphones while charging, you can, by plugging Apple’s supplied Lightning adapter into the case, then your headphones into the adapter. Apple is not the only game in town here, so you can score yourself a bit more juice, as well sadly as adding a bit more bulk, and use your phone while it’s charging. The downside here, other than the extra size, is that you’ll eventually need to charge the case. But you can do that while your phone had a full charge.

Apple sells a Lightning Dock in its store for $49 USD. This will charge your phone, provide speakers, and it contains a 3.5 mm headphone jack. If you charge your phone by the bed and just want to use it there, or perhaps you use it at the office where it’s plugged in, this could work for you. The product has a scary number of one star reviews in Apple’s Online Store, but people are more inclined to review in criticism rather than praise, and hopefully Apple will support you if you get a dodgy one.

A number of manufacturers, such as Griffin, sell a 3.5 to Bluetooth adapter. As you know if you’ve been following this debate, a lot of hearing aid streaming devices that use Bluetooth aren’t adequate for proficient VoiceOver users because of extreme lag and energy consumption issues. So some of these adapters may introduce the dreaded lag inherent in many Bluetooth audio devices with VO, but if they use Bluetooth 4.1, it’s possible that the lag will be less than some of the older streamers for hearing aids on the market. but I guess the only way we’ll know that is to try them. They may get you by while you get a quick charge.

And that brings me onto dealing with the subject of my post, why I’m getting an iPhone 7 Plus.

Although this headphone issue is creating challenges for us, challenges which exist in many use cases but are particularly compelling for deaf blind people, this hasn’t suddenly turned Apple into Darth Vader Incorporated. There is a lot to like from Apple at present, in terms of fantastic new software changes across all platforms. On the hardware side, the extra storage will be helpful to me, and I’m intrigued to explore the ways app developers might use the dual camera system in the 7 Plus to benefit blind people.

I don’t drop my phone in water often, but I confess I have done it once, so the water and dust resistance will be nice.

And of course people are kind enough to buy books I write about iThings, so my readers hopefully benefit from my first-hand experience, and that hopefully helps the bottom line here at Mosen Consulting.

I could probably manage to sit this cycle out, but the final thing that swayed me was a bunch of emails and a couple of tweets. I admit, I do find it a bit tough to have my motives questioned just for raising an issue that really matters a lot to a group we often don’t hear from. If you put yourself out there and state an opinion, people of course have just as much write to criticise that opinion as you do to express it. I get that. But I have been deeply moved by people who have emailed me, and there have been more than a couple of dozen, who have thanked me for speaking out for wearers of hearing technology. There’s more of us than you may think.

And ultimately, that’s why I’m getting the iPhone 7 Plus. Realistically, I think it’s very unlikely Apple will reverse the decision to ditch the jack, much as some people would like that to happen. So if I can use my iPhone 7 Plus, and what writing, technology testing and evaluation skills I have to help be a part of the solution in this next chapter of Apple’s journey, then it will be a pleasure to do what I can. If they do bring the jack back, hurray. If not, maybe I can help test and advise about products that may ease the transition as hearing aid and cochlea implant manufacturers adapt. It will take some time for those adaptations to filter through. Products have to be researched, designed and then brought to market.

Even after that, it can take a long time before such products are in the hands of end-users. Hearing aid technology at the profound end can cost many thousands of dollars. Even where funding is available, there are normally limits on how often that funding can be accessed by one individual. Once every five years is not uncommon.

I would like for Apple to have given the hearing aid industry plenty of notice, to have phased out the ubiquitous headphone jack in favour of an equally open standard that was being embraced by the entire industry, such as USB C, but we have to deal with reality. For me at least at this point, switching to another mobile platform would be too much of an accessibility hit in other respects. Android is simply not a viable platform for anyone who is deaf blind because of the abysmal Braille support.

So, I’ll continue to blog here about useful tips and gadgets for the hearing impaired as I begin this journey. I’m not hugely excited about the upgrade in some ways, yet I always relish a technological challenge.

Now, to fire up my Apple Store app in readiness. But before I do, its difficult for me to find words to convey how profoundly grateful I’ve been to everyone who has expressed understanding and empathy on this issue, even if it doesn’t effect them. For many of us that use hearing aids, the iPhone has become a big part of our working and personal lives. Yes, we have the legacy devices and will have for some time, but it has been stressful for many people to feel that we have to speak out and defend the access we already have as new devices are rolled out. I’m confident we’ll get there, even if the transition may be clunky at times. But the encouragement and expressions of support really are appreciated, not just by me, but by others in the same boat who have seen them too.,

5 Comments

  1. Sebby

    Well, that’s certainly one way of saying, “Ooh! Shiny! Must have new shiny …”

    But seriously, though, I empathise. I don’t agree, but I empathise. I won’t buy an iPhone 7, because I won’t reward this misstep. I’m not hearing-impaired enough to need a specific audio-output peripheral; it’s just the principle. I don’t know if I mentioned it before on this blog (I have elsewhere) so I’ll repeat that, although I am totally fine and dandy with the future and thinking different, I see nothing of value to the consumer in taking something away without adequately replacing it. As things stand, the only beneficiary is Apple, for the Lightning connector. Of all the connectors, didn’t it just have to be Lightning? Even the loss of the ability to charge and listen simultaneously would have been bearable, if not for the use of Lightning. I will not contribute to a fragmented headphone market, in which headphone suppliers are either forced to make headphones just for Apple, or to make headphones in such a way that only Apple users pay the price of their inconvenient, non-standard connector. Whoever thought up this strategy at Apple should be shot, as a public service.

    Anyway, keep it up, and good luck on your iPhone 7 adventures. I look forward to your musings on the subject.

    Android? Notwithstanding the spy in your pocket thing, I’m afraid I don’t agree that Android is suitable for daily use, even as a speech user. I keep hoping that this will change, but so far the best experience seems to be a nose-dive into the deep end, with not very much in the way of an app ecosystem to compensate for it, and some truly annoying quirks to boot. I know it’s not really fair to compare to iOS, but it’s the gold standard, and it really works. JMO, of course.

  2. Travis R.

    Hi,
    In my opinion you touched on the real issue for hearing aid users in passing. Instead of being upset at Apple, I am more perturbed with hearing aid manufacturers so-called streaming devices. Why in 2016 can’t they master simple Bluetooth connectivity with near instant on and maintaining connections like so many off-the-shelf speakers and headsets can do? They already charge enough to be able to put the latest Bluetooth technology in them can’t they master this simple common courtesy?
    I can only speak on my experience with Phonak aids and their ComPilot streamer but suspect others are similar. In this instance, almost all delay I have observed is caused by the ComPilot streamer. First it takes forever to connect when its powered on. Then it takes another 5-10 seconds each time it is requested to transfer sound. Third it refuses to maintain a connection for more than 5 seconds if it thinks streaming is not occurring because of a supposed battery savings. For those who have not seen a ComPilot, it is a good 2 inches by 2 inches square. Now manufacturers can get a five hour run-time into a earpod sized device and you are saying a big box like this can’t get decent battery life? Fourth while Phonak is absolutely brilliant at microphone design for their hearing aids, which they need to be, they cannot seem to carry any of this knowledge over to the ComPilot’s built-in mic for making a calling-capable headset. Why?
    Back to the delay. I also have an old-school type cordless phone that is made by Phonak and it has a wireless chip in it to send on the same digital channel as the ComPilot does. It makes for very nice clear call quality when I am near a old-school type phone jack to use it. (Vo-IP devices do work.) Anyways, when the cordless phone is switched on and placed by the aids, the transition to the digital signal by the aids is while not seamless, in around one second or so. A vast improvement from the streamer. Therefore I submit this as at least one exhibit that the main delay is in the streamer and should be a relatively easy fix just by updating it to adopt off-the-shelf technology from any number of Bluetooth-enabled audio devices.
    I for one do not understand why I should be tethered to an old wire just because I may need to use hearing aids. The technology is already available to get past this problem.

    • Jonathan Mosen

      Hi Travis, You’re absolutely right, when there’s a compatibility issue like this, it’s important to examine it from both sides.

      My sense is that the ComPilot, which has absolutely dreadful latency with VO, is OK for most people who just make phone calls and listen to music. I’m not sure how many other use cases there are for the latency to be improved.

      I heard that some of the new made for iPhone hearing aids have very good latency, but of course you’d also want to be able to use them effectively with other devices such as PCs and Macs, and blindness devices like the Stream.

      You can be sure I’ll be researching the hearing aid end of this, And if you find out anything useful as well, I’d be very keen to hear.

      • Luis Peña

        Jonathan, although this issue doesn’t affect me personally, I have been very disappointed at this change in the iPhone, because I think a lot of people like you. Throughout more than 15 years, I have had the opportunity to learn many things from you and although I have never had the opportunity to meet you, I consider you a very good friend and my main mentor in the area of assistive technology. I hope this issue could be resolved in the near future for the benefit of many blind people who have hearing problems.

  3. Travis R.

    Hi Jonathan

    Yes I would like to try those new made for iPhone hearing aids also. My general understanding is to this point they are targeting the mild hearing loss segment but hopefully that will change. If you find anything of interest please share.

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