It’s official. Tim Cook himself got up on stage and introduced Phil Schiller who presented the iPhone 7, sans 3.5mm audio jack. In its place we got something much better: freedom.
Of course I don’t mean freedom in a Braveheart sense, or the release-from-prison-after-a-decade-of-incarceration kind of freedom. Instead, Apple has paved the way — once again — for the direction that the consumer electronics industry is sure to follow.
The lack of headphone jack on the iPhone 7 is met equally with the release of new, wireless AirPods — with a rated battery life of 24 hours and sound quality that’s said to be as good as the current, wired EarPods that ship with the iPhone 6S.
AirPods is a play on words between the Macbook Air and the EarPods that have been shipping with iPhones for several years. In addition, the wireless AirPods — powered by a custom-made Apple W1 wireless chip — include integrated beamforming microphones, so you can use them for phone calls and interact with Siri. The W1 chip appears to be the custom chip that’s been rumoured to be in development by Apple that allows both high fidelity playback and standout power efficiency using the existing Bluetooth standard.
Before you butt in and educate us about all the previously existing wireless headphones on the market, let’s look at previous occasions where Apple has done something similar and the effect it had. Starting in 2007, the iPhone was the first major cell phone release to feature a virtual keyboard rather than fixed-feature physical keyboards which were the norm. The iPhone was met with fanfare and it’s difficult to comprehend a smartphone today without a capacitive virtual keyboard.
In 2011, the iPad was released and many — if not the majority of — people declared it a flop and merely "an oversized iPod Touch". After many millions of iPads, Samsung Galaxy Notes and other tablet PCs later, it’s plain to see that the tablet form factor works, it’s popular and it was enough of a disruptor to have most major PC vendors follow up with their own version. Firewire was dropped before USB 3.0 was a thing.
Optical Drives started dropping off when the Macbook Air was announced, followed closely by the desktop iMac after it. Ethernet ports haven’t been seen on Apple laptops for several years. None of these are missed and they’ve allowed features such as Taptic engines, co-processors, bigger batteries and thinner form factors to take their place and rightly so.
Apple is very effective in reducing the clutter in users’ lives, stripping back as much as possible to serve up only what is needed and not necessarily what everyone wants. As thoroughly chronicled, Apple lives by 'skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been' and it’s this logic — this forward-thinking mentality — that pushes new technologies and fewer distraction onto consumers (and professionals) in ways that may not make sense at the time but come into their own with a little bit of patience.
Lack of optical drives, new Lightning cables, USB Type-C ports, Thunderbolt cables and voice-based assistants a la Siri all came to the mass market with Apple’s help. It can be argued that if Apple didn’t bet the boat on these technologies, they wouldn’t be mainstream today. It’s brave, it’s bold and given its likely success, will push other makers to develop improved wireless headphones themselves and once again give consumers greater buyer power.
It’ll likely be further down the line that the public gains the clarity to see the genius behind these moves and certainly when their favourite PC vendors release a similar product; they’ll have no choice but to agree with the move. The question now is what competitors will bring out to keep up with Apple. To answer the question, Apple’s lightning connector has proven itself more than capable of transmitting power to and from the iPhone for such uses as noise-cancelling earphones, powered speakers and other hardware.
It’s this interface that’s ideally suited to take over the role of a singular, analogue interface, which has been around for too many decades. People are afraid of change and that’s evident in many of the shifts done in the past but there’s a self-correction as time goes on and we, as users will benefit from it overall.