On September 7th, Apple introduced the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and with that introduction they announced a host of new features: improved cameras, water resistance, stereo speakers, longer battery life, better displays, and much more. Amid the raft of upgrades was a curious omission - the headphone jack.
“It makes no sense to tether ourselves with cables to our mobile devices,” said Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Apple, during the keynote presentation. “We believe in a wireless future,” added Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, in a video showcasing Apple’s new Bluetooth headphones, dubbed AirPods.
Apple has a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to abandoning technologies they consider obsolete in favour of emerging ones. As the late Steve Jobs recounted in a 2010 interview with Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, they were the first to move to 3.5” floppy drives from 5.25” ones; they were one of the first to get rid of floppy disks altogether (along with serial and parallel ports) in favour of USB with the iMac; and they were one of the first to get rid of optical (CD/DVD) drives on laptops with the MacBook Air. More recently, they shipped an entirely new MacBook with just a single USB port of the brand new Type-C variety – incompatible with regular USB cables without an adapter – as well as new additions to the MacBook Pro line with between two and four of these Type-C ports and nothing else. As with the headphone jack on the iPhone 7, Apple's justification was, again, a push towards our inevitable wireless future. A massive and unexpected outcry from professionals (who use a lot of wired legacy devices on their MacBook Pros) prompted Apple to slash the prices on its USB Type-C dongles and adapters.
There's no doubt that wireless is the direction we're headed for all our devices - the question is, are we there yet? Let's take a look at some real world scenarios.
I live on the cutting edge of technology. I’ve had Bluetooth headphones and speakers for years, so I didn’t care about the lack of a headphone jack initially. Then I remembered my (relatively new) Honda Civic. When a friend or family member gets into my car and wants to play their music, I pass them the Aux cord and they plug it into their headphone jack. I can’t do that with an iPhone 7. "No problem," you think. "This car has Bluetooth. They can just connect to that!" Except for one problem – you can’t add a Bluetooth device while the car is moving, even as a passenger. Let’s say I pull over and start the onerous Bluetooth pairing process, which involves some sort of dark magic and typing '0000' at just the right time. Finally, the phone is connected, and I start driving while my friend puts on some choice tunes. After a few minutes, my phone rings. I hit the handsfree button to answer it, but nothing happens. Oh, wait, that's right - only one phone can be paired with this Honda Civic at a time, and since my friend’s phone is paired, my phone is disconnected. Welcome to the future!
"But that's not Apple's fault," you say. "That's Honda's fault for their poor Bluetooth implementation." Sure, maybe it is Honda's fault, but the last time I checked, Apple hasn’t made a car (yet), so until they do, an iPhone with a headphone jack works better and more seamlessly out in the real world than one without. But we're not just talking about headphone jacks here - like I said before, Apple's trying to push for a wireless future with all its products, including the aforementioned MacBook. Let's look at another situation where that works super well, this time leaving out the Honda Civics and using only Apple devices.
When the latest MacBook was introduced, Phil Schiller again extolled the virtues of wireless. According to Schiller, "The only intelligent vision for the future of the notebook is one without wires, where you don't have to plug up cables to connect to things." My sister has the latest MacBook, as well as an iPhone. When she wanted to move her music from iTunes to her iPhone, she couldn't figure out how, because you can't plug the iPhone into the MacBook's lone USB Type-C port without an adapter. This should be easy, since Apple allows you to sync iOS devices over Wi-Fi, right? Except there's just one small problem - to enable Wi-Fi sync, you need to plug the iPhone into your computer and then choose "Sync with this device over Wi-Fi" in iTunes. Cool “future of the notebook,” Phil. That “without wires” thing seems to be really working out for everyone who now has to buy extra wires just to be able to plug two Apple devices together.
Speaking of wires and plugging in Apple devices, here’s another real-world story. I updated my iPhone to iOS 10 the minute it was released (wirelessly, of course – I’m all about the future). Too bad there was a bug with the update, and my phone quickly became a very expensive paperweight, displaying nothing but an image of – you guessed it – a cable, with an arrow pointing to an iTunes logo. That’s right – the only way to get my phone working after the wireless update broke it was to plug it into my computer and restore it from iTunes. But what if my “computer” was an iPad Pro, which Apple’s latest ads are aggressively marketing as a laptop replacement? Even worse, what if it was the iPad Pro that I was trying to update, and that ended up bricking itself? No wireless magic could save me from a trip to the Apple Store and a long wait to have someone use a cable to time travel my broken technology back from the wireless future and into the very wired (but working) present.
Oh, and those AirPods that Apple showed off as proof positive of a wondrous wireless utopia, that were scheduled for release in late October? We’re now well into December, and there’s still no sign of them, and nothing but silence from Apple.
Technology doesn’t advance on its own. It moves forward only because people push it forward, and sometimes the transition phase can be painful and difficult. Apple’s products are marvels of technology that provide us with a glimpse of what the future looks like, but unfortunately, we have to live in the present – a present where wireless connectivity isn’t the panacea Apple claims it to be.