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The author of Waffle, some guy in Sweden, also occasionally writes stmts.net.

Lately on Waffle

Headphone Meltdown

Apple has lost it completely:

  1. On macOS Sierra, when you click the play/pause button on attached headphones and Siri is Off, an alert comes up asking you whether you want to enable Siri. Every. Single. Time. No matter what you do. (Reported: Radar 28386625.)

  2. On iOS 10, if the screen is off, the Lightning headphone adapter stops playing back music after five minutes.

  3. On iOS 10, the controls on Lightning headphones stop responding intermittently.

I don’t say they’ve lost it completely because they’re completely debilitating bugs, I say it because anyone who’s affected would find it in the first day of use, and millions of people are affected.

You don’t get to say that everything just works, you don’t get to say that you’ve considered every detail, you don’t get to say that you have a good enough grasp of how your customers are using their products if this is the kind of stuff that slips through. Not the kind that appears in the first beta builds as everything is barely starting to click together – the kind that ships to millions of customers.

I don’t wish for someone to be fired over this, I just wish there were two grumps on every product team who didn’t buy into the full vision and who imagines what it’s like for some of these millions of customers to actually use what they’re putting together. Will the company who prides itself on “saying ‘no’ to a thousand things” please stop thinking up ways to build cars for ten seconds and test the stuff it’s shipping today?

(TL;DR: Bro, do you even test?)

But No Simpler

What has happened in the past few days is just a repetition, a perfect demonstration of Apple’s biggest problem.

And no, their biggest problem is not that they no longer have SCSI ports on MacBooks, or that they are called MacBooks and not PowerBooks. (It is very easy to be painted into this caricature if you happen to disagree with something cast as progress.)

Their biggest problem is this: knowing when to stop. Apple is one of a few non-solely-luxury companies to find success with the idea that doing something “right”, polishing every corner, letting the intent of the sculptor be the final word is more important than everything else.

The culture inside Apple is that what it does is in service of making the world a better place, and that Apple is needed to stress these things that might not otherwise get much of a shake. Although it may be seen as arrogant, when it comes down to it, I believe it’s more right than wrong.

What is missing is the ability to stand up, think clearly, as free from Apple-internal dogma as from the constraints adopted by their competitors, and walk 10 feet away from idealism. To realize that the clarity of one mission is within grasp, but to be pragmatic.

Here’s what’s going to happen shortly. “Headphone-gate” will plow onward, Apple will refuse to do anything other than protect the course it has already charted. Apple will present iPhone sales as one sales number, not providing a break-out number of iPhone 7, and since many people who decide a headphone jack is necessary decided to get an iPhone 6s or SE instead, it will appear that Apple has weathered the storm. Tim Cook will not betray a model breakdown besides possibly capacities during the quarterly results call, and that will be the end of it.

Apple has played this game before. Apple are the experts of coming out of things with the same attitude as it went into it with. The actual casualties will be ignored. The point is that Apple will never do anything that will allow the theories they put forward to be tested. It will never become a public fact that headphone jacks are beloved, and that models selling them are unexpectedly popular, until all models are phased out of the lineup, at which point it could be confused with a mysterious downturn, and attributed to the latest Android models.

Consider this: an iPhone 7 that is 3-4 mm thicker, has just about twice the battery life, no camera hump, possibly a small boost in performance and of course a headphone jack. Let’s call it the iPhone P, for Pragmatic (or L, for “Laggard”). I would buy the iPhone 7 today if it had a headphone jack, but I know many, many people who would give up their current phone in a heartbeat if such a beast as iPhone P existed.

Apple doesn’t offer this. It would solve all of their problems if they could. It would let them include everything they wanted, and could still be heart-achingly beautiful. It would let them keep offering the iPhone 7 and give customers the choice to decide which they value more. It would give whatever iPhone sale downturn they’re in a rapid and sudden reversal. Stock prices would soar, as would customer satisfaction.

Why don’t they offer this? Because it wants to be a company to which it is more important to be right than to serve the actual needs of their customers. It wants to put a dent in the universe in terms of causing upheaval and in terms of implementing an idealistically pure world view, not in terms of being solicitous towards the everyday problems of people. Letting people pick thicker mocks their effort and drive to make things thinner, even if that drive is exactly what would let them offer iPhone P, too.

Another good example of this is the onanistic metrics used to market the MacBook Air then and iMac now, where the thinnest single point of the computer is touted loudly and widely, as well as celebrated with forced perspective in glamorous product shots to give vistas that never actually benefit the customer in any meaningful way. The MacBook Air was thin, but what made it useful was that the overall thickness was very thin, not that the tapered edges were however many millimeters thin. To say nothing of the iMac, where it matters even less.

I am very wary writing this past bit because I do enjoy Apple’s sense of design and don’t want to tell anyone to hold it back, but part of the current malaise is that there’s no sense of appreciating when the improvements to the design stop having a practical effect. Taking a craft to its logical conclusion is worth appreciating, fostering and pursuing for its own sake. But when did it become more important than solving actual problems, like placing ports where they will be easy to reach for and find?

My own streak of buying every single iPhone flagship model has come to an abrupt halt, and I’ll be keeping my 6s until it gives out, and then who knows what will happen. I certainly am not expecting anything to change. I just don’t appreciate the lack of breadth in the current debate, where I’m expected to have to pick a side, and be unable to have reasoned arguments in support of something just because the case can be made that it is dated. If that’s the case, Apple just celebrated its 40th birthday. Where does the line for “legacy” go for computer and consumer electronics companies?



iPhone 7 has now been announced and has no headphone jack. It comes with a free pair of Lightning-based EarPods and a free Lightning-to-3.5-mm-headphone adapter. They also are going to sell wireless, Bluetooth-based AirPods going for $159.

Before diving into the rest, let’s recap the AirPods, which are interesting, interesting being a different word from, say, “warmly recommended”. They have a chip in them, a W1 Apple-made wireless chip for some sort of smarts. They have IR sensors to detect when they’re in your ear and to not play unless that’s the case. They have a case in which they charge (and which in turn charges from a Lightning port). When you open the lid, they can be “connected” to your iPhone and other devices, and “pairing” was sufficiently made fun of that it’s not going to be a thing. Apparently, using iCloud (hopefully not actually using the cloud, but just doing some sort of local gossiping to other devices linked to the same account, similar to how Handoff works), you will also be able to play stuff to them from other devices.

This is much worse than I imagined – I was expecting some sort of shoe to drop to make this palatable, like wireless charging of the phone too. I will admit that a fair amount of conventions were uprooted and smart things were done to help the wireless story towards what it needs to be. But here’s the problem: if things that you start to play from your other connected devices really do start to play on the AirPods too, that’s the wireless headphones nightmare, to not have any control over those things. It looks as though the way you choose it is through the AirPlay menu, even on Macs. It’s not that this is a cognitive mystery to learn and understand, it’s that it is going to take a tremendous amount of time to unlearn, especially if there’s some sort of magical switching behavior going on, or if they come or go – it’s hard to forecast the exact behavior given the vagueness of “no more pairing”.

And, still, the problem isn’t that there are now one more $159 pair of headphones that you can avoid buying. (Using those AirPods to listen to music or podcasts for a working day (the only way many people do their work now) requires a charge mid-day because the capacity is 5 hours.) It’s that everyone who had and used headphones with their iPhone, which is – what? 60%? 75%? Can’t possibly be less than 45%. – all of these people now have a significantly worse story. Unless they buy wireless headphones that are likely more expensive than their current ones, need to be charged and come with headaches that will only be worth it for some of the population.

And unless they buy Lightning headphones, of which fewer alternatives exist, and which come with other downsides, mainly not being able to use them with computers and other non-Lightning devices… or why not that there’s no way with just the phone, the phone and an adapter or even with the phone, a dock and any number of adapters, to charge the phone and use the headphones simultaneously. Previously, I pooh-poohed the inelegance of an adapter that would look freakish but be necessary, the Lightning to headphone with a passthrough for charging adapter, but inelegance was apparently enough to not offer it, which is so much worse.

When Apple puts a single USB-C port in one of four laptop ranges, it signals “get onboard, this is where we’re going; by the time this has spread everywhere, our product will be more mature”. When they pull the headphone jack from every single one of the upcoming flagship iPhones, not only do they force a technical decision on millions of people who use headphones heavily every single day, they also force the outcome of that choice to be “pay for, and like, one of our wireless headphones, starting at a significant fraction of the price of the phone itself, or wrestle with a confusing melange of ill-advised, hacky-looking trade-offs that no one asked for”.

The iPhone 7 is the first flagship iPhone that I will very likely be giving a pass, after owning every previous model, including importing the original 2G GSM model from the US to Sweden. The new matte black looks luscious, I’ve been waiting for two years to have optical image stabilization on a 4.7″ model, I can not only get behind but drool for the camera improvements, wide-gamut color and an SoC with dedicated low-power cores, and the savings in battery life might have been worth the upgrade alone. But all of this is just too stupid and will be too big of an inconvenience. And, in the face of that, I guess I will agree that standing on the Apple keynote stage and claim that this is the future of iPhone’s audio story does take an undeniable amount of “courage”.

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