The latest iPhone rumor is that Apple might get rid of the 3.5 mm audio jack next year.
Eliminating a connector that’s used by countless headphones, speaker systems, and other peripherals would certainly create huge blowback for Apple. The reaction would probably be even more volatile than when the 30-pin dock connector was switched out for the slimmer, faster Lightning port in 2012.
But removing the iPhone’s headphone jack wouldn’t be an unprecedented move from the company that killed the floppy disk and CD drive in the Mac.
There are also technological benefits to using Apple’s own Lightning connector for headphones.
Apple has a long history of removing support for universally accepted technology, dating back to when it famously unveiled the first iMac without a floppy-disk drive in 1998.
Remember the collective outrage when Apple removed the optical CD drive in the Mac? Or how about when Apple chose to not let the iPhone’s browser support Adobe Flash, the horrible and insecure web standard that was nearly ubiquitous at the time and basically extinct now?
They were all big changes that may have caused inconvenience and raised eyebrows at the time. But looking back, they seem like obvious steps forward.
The audio jack in the iPhone is based on technology intended for telephone switchboards in the 19th century. It’s an ancient port, and while it’s a common standard now, its days are numbered.
That brings us to where things are headed. Wireless Bluetooth headphones are pretty common these days—you can find a decent pair on Amazon for $25. They work with any modern smartphone, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a car made in the last several years that doesn’t support audio playback over Bluetooth.
While the wireless aspect of Bluetooth is an obvious benefit, headphone makers like Phillips are already starting to put out wired headsets with Lightning connectors as well.
Lightning is a superior connector compared to the existing 3.5 mm audio jack in the iPhone because it’s digital. That means the iPhone’s software could fine-tune the way headphones sound, like an equalizer. An app like Spotify could also be programmed to open whenever you plug in headphones.
Then there’s the rumor that Apple is considering the implementation of hi-res audio for Apple Music in 2016, a format that’s supported by Lightning already. For noise-canceling headphones that require a separate power source, Lightning could tap into the iPhone’s internal battery to provide juice. Having fewer cables is always a good thing.
The main downside of Lightning-equipped headphones right now is price. Apple recently started selling an $800 pair of Lightning headphones from Audeze in its store, which only the most serious audiophile would even consider buying. Only a few companies have committed to Lightning so far, and their headphones generally run for at least $200.
My understanding is that if Apple does indeed remove the audio jack in next year’s iPhone 7, it won’t be for the sole purpose of making the device thinner. It’s true that Apple obsesses over thinness, but removing the 3.5 mm jack would at best make the iPhone about 1 mm thinner, which doesn’t seem worth the trade-off.
Lightning is also a proprietary connector that Apple owns, which makes it less than ideal for people who want to use their headphones like normal human beings with devices that aren’t owned by Apple. A more realistic scenario would be ditching the Lightning connector in the iPhone entirely for USB-C, an open standard that anyone can use.
The new 12-inch MacBook has a USB-C port, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the Mac lineup went the same direction in 2016. How or if USB-C replaces the Lightning connector in the iPhone and iPad is a stickier situation.