An iPhone Without a Headphone jack – the accessibility ramifications

This is a substantially revised version of a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, regarding the rumour from a usually reliable source that Apple may remove the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. There have been a few comments here on the Blog, but I’ve received many more via the contact form and email. It’s also been the subject of discussion on some of the iPhone-related email lists for blind people who use their iPhones with VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader.

In my original post, I focused on my own experience as a blind person who wears hearing aids. I’ve expanded this version to include the perspectives of those who have contacted me, most with normal hearing, who believe they would be adversely affected by the removal of the headphone jack. Others have raised issues that I hadn’t considered, so thanks to everyone who has been in touch.

First let me be clear that Apple itself has made no official statement about the future of the headphone jack. It’s only a rumour. But I read a lot of technology sources, and have come to know which sources tend to be more reliable. The source of this story, the Japanese technology site Mac Otakara, has a good track record. No news site that reports things like this gets it right 100% of the time though.

Even if the story is wrong, and I hope it is, I want to write a defence of the headphone jack for those who think its loss wouldn’t be a big deal. Some of us really, genuinely need it.

You can read an English summary of the story at Mac Rumours.

The source for this story has been deemed credible enough that it has received coverage in many reliable news sites, including ZDNet,
the International Business Times,
Mac Rumours,
Apple Insider,
CNN, and more.

It’s also important to put this story in context. What we know for certain is that in September of this year, Apple was granted a patent for a smaller headphone jack. It’s a proprietary size that no one else in the industry is using. You can read the patent here. Companies like Apple file patents all the time, to protect their intellectual property even when they’re brainstorming about things that never eventuate. But what this tells us for sure is that the size of the jack has been on Apple’s radar. It’s the one component preventing the iPhone from becoming a whole millimetre thinner.

The internal Apple source for the original story is saying that the discussion about the size of the headphone jack has resulted in a compromise. It’s saying they think the public backlash would be too great if they included a special headphone jack, but putting a digital to analogue converter in the Lightning connector would be a compromise Apple could live with, and they think the public will accept.

If this rumour is correct, Apple would probably include Earpods with a Lightning connector, since specs for headphones that use the Lightning port have been available since 2014.

According to the story, the Lightning port would include a digital to analogue converter, so you’d still be able to connect 3.5mm headphones. To do so, you’d plug a special adapter into the Lightning port, the same port you use to charge your phone. There is no word in the story that this Lightning port would be in addition to the one already on iPhones, implying that you’ll have one port for both charging your device and listening to wired headphones or connecting the device to a mixer.

My first objection to this rumour is a philosophical one. 3.5mm headphone jacks are ubiquitous. The standard is supported by a massive number of manufacturers. It would be sad if Apple required its users to carry a proprietary adapter, probably sold separately, to connect standard equipment to their single proprietary port.

Technology has to move forward, of course. Even if we see a headphone jack in the iPhone 7, the current standard has to be replaced by something better at some point. But an industry-wide forum is a far better way to come up with a new standard for audio jacks that everyone can embrace, so one set of headphones works with all our devices. Whether you’re blind or sighted, imagine how less convenient it would be if you had to carry two sets of earbuds with you, because your Apple EarPods had a Lightning connector at the end. Even Apple’s own Macs don’t offer a Lightning port, so you couldn’t unplug your EarPods from your iPhone and connect them to your Mac, let alone some non-Apple device with a headphone jack.

If you’ve invested in a good pair of headphones that work on every other device, you’d better not lose that adapter that’s sticking out of the end of your Lightning port, or you’ll be stuck until you buy another. And you can be sure Apple will charge you for it.

My remaining concerns relate to functionality. As a hearing-aid wearer, I use my iPhone with a cable between the headphone jack and my hearing aids about 95% of the time. There’s no latency because it’s analogue all the way, and since no Bluetooth is involved, it’s energy efficient in terms of hearing aid battery usage. The Lightning to analogue adapter would be one additional device to carry, use and potentially lose, and it would mean that I couldn’t use my iPhone in the way that is optimal for me while I’m charging it. There’s also the possibility that the digital to analogue converter may introduce latency. That wouldn’t be important for most tasks, but it would be detrimental to all VoiceOver users who use 3.5mm devices, not just hearing aid wearers.

Even if you don’t require hearing aids, as a VoiceOver user you may appreciate how snappy your iPhone feels when you plug headphones straight into it. It’s functional, responsive, and easy.

But there’s always Bluetooth, and that’s the way the world is going, right? There may be a few exceptions, but the majority of Bluetooth audio I’ve used on iOS is so laggy with VoiceOver that I find it a frustrating, sub-optimal experience. Streamers for hearing aid wearers often power down very quickly after VoiceOver has stopped speaking, to save energy. This means that hearing aid wearers who use VoiceOver with Bluetooth streamers often must cope with missing the first second or two of what VoiceOver is saying, as the Bluetooth streamer powers up after detecting audio. If you’re taking a phone call or listening to music, that’s no big deal, but for a VoiceOver user, it’s not a good experience. And Bluetooth streamers chew through hearing aid batteries faster than an analogue connection, imposing additional costs on hearing aid wearers. Many people who don’t wear hearing aids have told me over the last week how laggy they find VoiceOver with a Bluetooth headset, and that VoiceOver quality is often poor. You can really notice the difference, they say, when trying to flick through the screen quickly, or use the virtual keyboard at a decent speed.

Taking hearing impairment out of the mix, there are many people who use the 3.5mm jack, and want to do so while charging their device. Bonnie, for example, has a pillow speaker, because she likes the radio on at night. It plugs into her iPhone while it’s charging.

There’s also the question of privacy. Some of us have our speech cranked up so fast that the untrained ear can’t understand it. But we don’t all do that. At normal speeds, text-to-speech is now highly intelligible, even if you’re not used to working with it. What that means is that if a blind person wishes to ensure they can use their iPhone with privacy, safeguarding personal information and private communications, they will want to use headphones in conjunction with screen curtain, a feature which darkens the screen when VoiceOver is running so it can’t be seen.

Because of latency issues, many of us will want to use wired headphones, even when the phone is charging. Blind people should be able to use their phones optimally when they’re charging, just like anyone else. Perhaps Apple will come out with some sort of adapter that has a Lightning port and a 3.5 jack, but it is likely to be a cumbersome solution jutting out of your phone. It would be a tiny component, easy to lose.

We may be about to see a similar controversy with iPhone to the one that greeted the new MacBook’s single USB C port and all the inconveniences that go with that. When that controversy was at its peak, proponents said that Apple often likes to move the tech agenda forward, and that they’re uniquely positioned to do that by making “bold” decisions like this. Sorry, I don’t consider a single port for peripherals and charging a bold decision. It’s just a pain. If you want to use multiple devices, you have to buy some sort of hub, which detracts from the convenience of having an all-in-one device.

Yes Apple, we get it, you can make the iPhone thinner. But there’s an opportunity cost in doing so. I really don’t want a phone one more millimetre thinner, when it’s going to create an experience for me that would be poorer.

Some have written to me and said, “why get so bent out of shape over a rumour?” My answer is that the time to let Apple know our feelings about something is when there’s a possibility of them rethinking a decision. If they come out in September with the new iPhone, and it has no headphone jack, even if customer reaction is so strong that Apple reverses course, that wouldn’t be for a year or two. So if you’re concerned, now is the time to express that concern. It’s also telling that even though this rumour has caused considerable upset, even among some loyal Apple fans, Apple haven’t put people’s fears to rest by denying the rumour.

So what can we do about it? It’s possible that the decision has already been taken, but perhaps it has not. Some people have little confidence they can influence outcomes, and even though they’re bothered by the prospect of the dedicated headphone jack disappearing, they shrug their shoulders and conclude that Apple won’t listen, no matter what we do. They could be right, but there’s another possibility. Maybe Apple wants this to leak. It’s a common public relations strategy that a company will let something leak that they know could be controversial, so they can see what the fall-out might be like if they went ahead with a certain course of action.

If you believe that Apple unilaterally pulling the headphone jack without an agreed industry-wide alternative would be detrimental to your user experience, take the time to let Apple know that. You can complete their iPhone feedback form. I’ve heard from dozens of you already who have done just that. Thank you. We’re paying customers, and our money is as valuable as anyone else’s. We can and should let manufacturers of the products we use hear our voices if we’re concerned a product is about to take a backward step.

Would you be bothered if Apple took the 3.5mm jack away? If so, how do you use the jack at the moment? Share your views in the comments.


1 Comment on “An iPhone Without a Headphone jack – the accessibility ramifications

  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking article. Lack of a earphone jack would really hurt those who do not use Braille, and I’ve seen other devices that do not have a standard 3MM headset and had to resort to USB headsets.
    If rumors turn out to be correct, I’ll stik with my iPod Touch and consider iPhone 6. There are some games that are self-voicing and require earphones as well not to mention loss of quality for any serious music lover.