Should this rumor prove to be true, Apple’s decision to switch to an all-in-one Lightning connector for charging and audio output could face the same kind of controversy as when the company retired its proprietary 30-pin dock connector in favor of a smaller Lightning connector starting with the iPhone 5 in 2012.
Online critics have argued that dropping the headphone jack would actually be worse for consumers than the 30-pin-to-Lightning switch. In that case, the swap was one-for-one; the devices lost the legacy connector, but they also gained a (more functional and more convenient) port.
This newly-rumored change (subsuming the headphone jack into the Lightning port) raises usability questions. How would users charge their phones and listen to music simultaneously? Posed more cynically, would this simple use case require a $39 Apple adapter?
Framed differently, what’s the customer benefit to eliminating the headphone jack? “Thinner devices” doesn’t cut it. That’s a nice perk, but it doesn’t outweigh the potential inconveniences.
What if there’s more to the story? What if ditching the 3.5mm jack will allow Apple to do something more interesting than just slimming down its already-slim device?
What if the new headphones integrated new sensors for capturing health data? Other companies’ earbuds can already measure heart rate, for example. I would love to shed the chest strap when I run. A standard 3.5mm jack could never ferry data this complex back to the phone. Lightning could.
A Lightning connection might allow Apple to dramatically improve the headphones’ remote control /microphone combo. The current remote is clever, but surprisingly primitive: the microphone button works by shorting the mic line with the electrical ground. The volume controls activate a resistor that drops the voltage. The phone then interprets these electrical signals and performs the appropriate action. It’s a cludgy, hacked hangover from a bygone era.
One example of a potential remote improvement: “Hey, Siri.” This year’s iPhones introduced the ability to put the phone at your beck and call. But this always-listening feature doesn’t work through the EarPod mic. If that’s a limitation of the legacy audio connection, Lightning may help.
What if the rumor mill has fundamentally misinterpreted the upcoming hardware change? What if Apple isn’t designing “Lightning headphones”—but rather wireless headphones with a Lightning charge adapter? Like the Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro, iPhone users could plug in the EarPods to top them off. That eliminates a major annoyance with current Bluetooth earbuds: no way to recharge them on the go. If the new EarPods could sip the iPhone’s battery in an emergency, you’d never run dry.
One added benefit here: plugging in your EarPods would automatically establish a Bluetooth connection (again, like the Apple Pencil). This eliminates another Bluetooth pain point: the fiddly pairing process.
It’s too early in the product development cycle to say for sure whether Apple plans to dump the 3.5mm jack in next year’s iPhone. And it’s also too early to condemn the move. If it happens, let’s hope Apple has more in mind than just “thinner and lighter.”
Honestly, the iPhone feels thin enough already, and slimming it down more would eliminate precious battery space. I already struggle to get through a full day without a charge. ↩
Unfortunately, I suspect that Apple’s answer here is “Buy an Apple Watch” (which has a heart rate monitor built in). ↩
Apple might still allow the EarPods to interact with the iPhone via the Lightning cable. After all, there are scenarios in which wireless connections don’t fly—e.g. during take-off and landing on commercial flights. ↩