Tag Archives: lightning

USB-C vs. the headphone jack

I have no problems with USB-C on the new MacBook Pro. It will be a small headache at the beginning, for sure. But because it’s a standard there’s no long-term compatibility risk the way there is with removing the 3.5mm headphone jack.

More on that below. First, Marco Arment doesn’t think using USB-C exclusively is very practical in a pro laptop:

A pro laptop released today should definitely have USB-C ports — mostly USB-C ports, even — but it should also have at least one USB-A port.

John Gruber responds that Apple’s strategy is to speed up adoption:

They design for the future, and in doing so, they bring the future here faster. In the alternate universe where the new MacBook Pros ship with one USB-A port, the transition to ubiquitous USB-C peripherals and cables will happen at least a little slower.

I agree with that. But then he closes with this:

I’m not saying Marco is wrong. I’m just saying Apple’s not wrong either. It’s the same trade-off with the iPhone 7 headphone jack.

I don’t think it’s the same at all. It’s a convenient narrative to group together both the migration away from USB-A and the one away from 3.5mm headphones. There are important differences, though.

USB-C is a standard that is already used in many devices from different vendors. It will become universal. The immediate replacement for the 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7 is the Lightning EarPods which come in the box. Lightning is a proprietary cable that will never be used in non-Apple phones, and in fact is not even used on Macs.

You can argue that more and more people will use Bluetooth headphones, but I doubt they will be as common as wired headphones for many years, and there’s no guarantee that an all-wireless future will ever arrive. There is a very clear migration from USB-A to USB-C. The move to Lightning headphones and Bluetooth is much more complicated and not directly comparable.

Lightning headphones in the box

John Gruber has an article outlining the 5 (or 6) most likely options for what headphones Apple should include with the new Lightning-only iPhone. His hope is on wireless:

My hope is that they ship wireless ear buds. When Apple eliminates ports, they tend to do so in favor of wireless technology. Pushing wireless as the default would solve the problem of listening to audio while charging the device, too.

Maybe. I’m not in any hurry to see a Bluetooth-dominated headphone world, and I’m not sure Apple Support is either. Wired headphones work every single time you plug them in.

As Gruber points out, wireless headphones are also an upsell opportunity. While cheap Bluetooth headphones can be found, Apple’s Beats are $100 more expensive for wireless. Seems like this extra cost would unnecessarily eat into their margins.

Of course, I have no idea what Apple will do. I just know what I think they should do.

Apple should include Lightning ear buds in the box, and an adapter for older headphones. I don’t expect they will do this forever — the first year would be enough. But this small gesture of including an adapter would mostly erase the negative reviews and user frustration for Apple’s biggest repeat customers: not me, because I intend to keep my iPhone SE for a while, but for everyone who buys a new iPhone each year.

Removing the 3.5mm headphone jack will be the first time Apple has removed a major feature on the iPhone. They can spin Lightning as an improvement all they want; customers with existing headphones will be annoyed. Including an adapter would minimize the inconvenience at launch, without locking Apple in to any long-term technical compromise.