This past week, Apple announced a number of things at a special event in San Francisco. Among them was the latest iPhone model which, controversially, did away with the 3.5 mm headphone jack. Company claims that this omission was “courageous” were met with sneers and jeers from the peanut gallery and media cognoscenti alike.
I myself am a bit miffed that the headphone jack has met its demise, mostly because I am terminally addicted to podcasts and that I spend a lot of time in my car, which doesn’t have Bluetooth audio capabilities. With no way to connect my phone to the car’s audio interface without many layers of expensive and eminently losable dongles, I will be holding out with my current iPhone 6 for a long time to come. (I’m not holding out hope for the return of the headphone jack, just prolonging the time between upgrade cycles… exactly the thing a device-centered company like Apple fears most.)
Sure, the “Courage” comment from Apple marketing SVP Phil Schiller was prima facie cringe-y, but it started a conversation. Now that the rumors of a jackless future are dispelled, journalists, pundits and strategists all got to chime in on the positive and negative implications of this product decision. This kind of coverage, more than the whiny pieces mocking the delivery and price points of Apple’s new product offerings, is what interested me most.
John Gruber explains the “courage” comment perfectly:
“Apple faced a choice between doing something that they knew would be controversial, that they knew would generate genuine outrage, but which would lead to everyone having a better experience in the long run […] or, they could have just kept including a fucking headphone jack and no one would have raised an eyebrow, at the expense of a slower adoption rate of wireless headphones.”
Ben Thompson, a favorite tech/strategy commentator of mine, had a couple things to say about the removal of the headphone jack and the new AirPods. Although he calls Schiller’s “courage” comment “the more tone-deaf moments in Apple keynote history” he also found the decision rather exciting because it opens up a set of possibilities for a new kind of interaction model. He alludes to a higher, more abstract kind of courage.
“What happens if we presume that the same sort of advancement that led from Touch ID to Apple Pay will apply to the AirPods? Remember, one of the devices that pairs with AirPods is the Apple Watch, which received its own update, including GPS. The GPS addition was part of a heavy focus on health-and-fitness, but it is also another step down the road towards a Watch that has its own cellular connection, and when that future arrives the iPhone will quite suddenly shift from indispensable to optional. Simply strap on your Watch, put in your AirPods, and, thanks to Siri, you have everything you need.”
Just like the hammer in the infamous 1984 commercial, the jack-less iPhone and AirPods might be the tiny projectiles that ultimately crack the idea that mobile phones are a necessary device at all. It’s too grandiose to call Schiller’s moment anti-Copernican, but to use Benedict Evans’s metaphor, the phone may eventually cease to be the sun around which the technology world revolves. Progressing from a post-PC to now a post-phone future brings a lot of uncertainty, navigating which will take, well, some courage.