Apple, don’t take my headphone jack away
I like thin, lightweight technology, but it isn’t the only criterion that determines what I use. If thin and light doesn’t give me the performance I need, I’m happy to choose something heavier or bigger.
When the iPhone 6 Plus came out, I bought one. Initially, it seemed absolutely enormous, and I thought I’d never get used to it. Now I’m on the 6s Plus and would never go back to a smaller iPhone. The battery life and the bigger screen for Braille screen input make it the right choice for me.
After being a MacBook Air user for three years, I recently bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro with all the specs maxed out. It includes 16GB of RAM and 1TB solid state storage.
Compared to my MacBook Air, the Pro feels heavy and thick, and I’ve therefore given it the nickname “The Big Kahuna”. But it fits in my backpack just fine when I travel, it isn’t really that arduous to take places, and the thing is, it goes like a rocket. I enjoy having OS X for a few apps and functions, but Windows is still my primary operating system. With a laptop this fast and powerful, I can run JAWS in a virtual machine with superb results, and still tend to iMessages and FaceTime calls.
Sometimes I pick up my old MacBook Air and think, “oy, what have I done? This thing is so cute!” But the performance factor soon reminds me that I made the right decision for my particular needs.
There’s plenty of choice of form factor in the MacBook line now. If you want to go ultra-portable, there’s the new 12-inch retina MacBook, which is just adorably thin and light, with compromises to match. It sports a single USB type C port, which is the only way both to connect peripherals to it and charge it. And the keyboard is, to put it charitably, an acquired taste.
So when it comes to Mac, Apple now has a line-up that can meet the needs of the road warrior who wants something really light for a bit of word processing, email and web surfing, all the way to someone who needs plenty of grunt and is willing to lug it around.
There is not so much flexibility in the iPhone stable, where there are usually now two current models with similar specs but different screen sizes. So when I read a rumour that Apple may dispense with the 3.5mm headphone jack in iPhone 7 models, it had me concerned.
Before I explain why, 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. It’s also possible that Apple wants to monitor customer reaction to the idea, by letting it leak. But there’s no doubt that decisions as fundamental as this are being taken now, or probably have already been taken.
You can read an English summary of the story at Mac Rumours.
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.
The story suggests that the 3.5mm headphone jack will be dispensed with, because it’s preventing Apple from making the iPhone thinner. If they removed the jack, they could shave more than 1mm off the thickness of the phone.
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. 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. But they’ve done this before. Even on my maxed out MacBook Pro, I have to buy a special adapter just to connect to wired Ethernet.
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.
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 laggy with VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader for blind people like me, 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.
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.
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.
I realise that as a VoiceOver user with a hearing impairment passionate about getting the most optimal audio experience, I’m a minority within a minority. But if this rumour proves to be true, it will be my queue to seriously examine other mobile options. 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.
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.