waffle

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

Lately on Waffle

Jacked

(Previously.)

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”.

Heard Mentality

Let’s talk about distortion.

It is now fewer than 48 hours left until Apple unveils the iPhone 7. Barring any unforeseen events, it will be the first iPhone without a 3.5 mm headphone jack. It will likely be the first flagship phone of its kind to forgo a headphone jack, and it will set Apple on the path to inexorably eliminate them from at least some of its products.

Rumors of this have swirled around for many months now, long enough for speculation, frank discussion and sober comparisons to take place. The killer point is that very few people who have went into depth on this issue see many ultimate upsides. Lightning, MFi headphones already exist, and are more reliably correlated with high prices than with superb audio quality. (Followers of Beats will not be surprised.)

The argument that Apple is institutionally driven to remove the wire and move to wireless technology has undeniable cultural and psychological merit, especially with both the MacBook Air and the MacBook having been introduced since the first iPhone, with and without the involvement of Steve Jobs.

For me, it isn’t so much about standards and leaving gadgetry behind as it is about this: how will it be better? Right now, wireless headphones come with strong trade-offs – they’re the right piece of equipment for some people, but not for everyone. They need to be paired, you can lose contact with them and drop signals, you don’t easily see at a glance that they’re plugged in and god help you if you pair them to multiple devices, or a single device to multiple headphones. Some of the above are pain points for Bluetooh and could conceivably not be for a new wireless standard, but not all of them can be waved away like this.

Passing through the human body is just about the worst case scenario at least for the 2.4 GHz radio used by Bluetooth headphones and the transmitters they are able to use, and Apple would not ship chunkier smaller earbud-type headphones. The Bragi Dash has attempted to sidestep Bluetooth for bud-to-bud communication in favor of near-field magnetic induction, to what seems like widespread disappointment. And as relatively simple as Apple has made some of its interfaces for connecting to other wireless devices or networks or sending things here and there, they’ve also been plauged by connectivity and reliability issues – like how I can’t AirDrop things from my Mac to my iPhone, but vice versa is fine, and how this behavior suddenly changes sometimes, but not in response to OS updates, router restarts or network interface reenabling.

The user interface for a headphone is as simple as possible, and not simpler. You plug it into where it picks up the sound from. The cable both ferries the sound from the source to the target and is a cue for connection, and if you yank it, it disconnects. It is tactile and understandable, to a point where Apple has even went to pains to finish the story digitally, in making its devices stop playback when the cable is disconnected, one of few flaws.

Meanwhile, getting wireless headphones to pair with a device, making sure they stay connected, in range, not forgetting to change devices if your headphones are mobile, too – which they well might be in the case of the $300—400—or–much–worse monsters that some take to for a bearable sonic experience – involve work. It is a struggle, it is a downgrade in reliability, it is another increment of compounded frustration. For some, who have optimized their workflow to minimize these pains, or for whom the freedom of no wires is significant enough, the tradeoff is worth it. But not, by a long shot, for every single of the 40-or-so-million iPhone 7/iPhone 7 Plus owners we will see within the next year.

These people will instead be treated to a choice between a Lightning version of the craptastic Earpods, or the (guessing) $19/$29 little dongly thing, converting from the 2010s to the 19th century. The sort of little dongly thing that looks stupid on a MacBook and thoroughly ridiculous on a phone, even more so if it is big enough to allow for the Lightning pass-through to allow for charging.

I am dumb enough for many things, but not to believe that this will prevent Apple from going this route. They will set this path subject only to their own discretion, and I praise their freedom to do so. What I can’t quite get over is seeing people who were open earlier to seeing the alternate solution, the unseen parts of this equation, what only Apple knows right now, are taking delight already in consigning anyone not already dancing in the streets over the loss of the shackles of old jacks to the slow luddite moron basket. So much for sticking to the argument, seeing it play out, and possibly even taking Apple to task for killing something that was actually simplicity in its purest form over something that – for the purposes of being a replacement – is simple in wolf’s clothing, bringing side effects, needless manuevering, repetetive loss of connection and general anguish in its wake.

The loss of a “legacy port” and of another fraction of a millimeter of thickness – they’re both disproportionate sacrifices. And I may yet be wrong, but it will likely take some brilliant engineering to bring the tactility back to the user experience of being able to plug in headphones and be crystal clear about what exactly that means, and how easy it is to stop using them.

My only prediction for Wednesday’s event is that there will be no “it just works” over the wireless headphone story for iPhone 7. Oh, and that the new audio source/AirPlay audio icon, the arrow with the circular emanating waves on the second card in Control Center, will come to mean something more, possibly even be given an InterCaps name.

Media Library

We did not know how good we had it.

Yesterday, it was about a trove of LPs. Your collection of grammophone records. Then tapes, of the audio and VHS kind. Then CDs, then possibly DVDs…

The point is, it’s never been possible to say: I own a copy of this movie or of this song. You own a copy of a recording of it. That’s all. In the shape that it’s in. Like in Wii Virtual Console, you could buy, say, Super Mario Bros. And then when Wii U Virtual Console came out, you could bring them along, but also had to upgrade them so they’d follow along to the Wii U’s menu instead of living in the Wii menu, because of course the upgrade took someone’s time and work and effort, and it’s time to charge a little bit for that.

I’m not going to talk about how DRM and such things work against conservation, or note how it’s in the interests of producer companies to be able to re-spruce up things constantly and sell you a new copy. This observation has been made before.

What I don’t think has been worn to such a stub before is about the “balkanization” of your possessions. Maybe you’ve never really been able to pour all your belongings into one big pile on the floor and swim through them with what I assume is a very light touch, Scrooge McDuck-style. But to the extent that you could mix and match how you arranged these things before, you can’t anymore.

Every app is its own jail. Every container is its own new shop of horrors, working in a new way, showing its small subset of available creations.

I don’t hold much nostalgia for physical record stores, or video stores. But here’s what I didn’t have to do when I walked into them: I didn’t have to work out which of the 57 resellers, distributors, networks or partnerships a particular thing was available in, I didn’t have to hope that they were available in my city, I didn’t have to look up any of a number of set of terms that will eventually allow me to get the thing, I didn’t have to hunt for discount codes or settle on trial periods or work out which currency is best to pay in, I mostly didn’t have to find the right store to be able to use the payment method I’m most comfortable with, and I sure as fuck never had to worry about whatever I bought being repossessed because three years later, someone is being huffy in a contract negotiation.

Apple TV and things like it are doing the best they can trying to solve all this. But we used to make standards – a CD was a CD was a CD. Now it’s platforms and apps. Now it’s signing up for HBO or Netflix or going manually to Louis CK’s web site to buy Horace and Pete. Now it’s managing a thousand overlapping terms of services and payment schedules.

I understand that this shit is not easy and that everyone wants to make their mark, make their platform the best. But why the shelf died, I will not understand. Why it can’t be that we all work out a set of standards for what a piece of media is, what a payment method is, what a media provider is, and have them all intermingle in some sort of post-iTunes, post-Spotify, post-Amazon, neo-Delicious Library of the fucking 2010s already, where you go to search and it searches all the things that anyone wants to sell, possibly via aggregators because spambots are still a thing, and it’s a click to find something and a click to buy something, and they don’t scurry off into their own apps and you have to sigh deeply when you go to watch that show that’s on the network with the horrible app, and if you’re unsatisfied with this particular neo-Delicious Library, you can get any of a number of clients like this because it’s all just fucking standards.

Yes, I know. Getting people to agree to this would be like pulling teeth, and would make even the normally sort of reasonable people look like the normally unreasonable people, because you’re saying “what if your business model was suddenly worth a lot less?”. But I’m just saying – what if this did exist? People would get paid in droves. Things would stay where you put them and you’d pick the best organization that worked for you. People who listened to classical music could pick an organizer that knew what being composer-centric was, and gain back three hours daily from fighting inefficiencies and/or telling people about it. And most importantly – there would be a chance at a single, coherent collection, not beholden to the success of any particular hare-brained, topping-out-at-9%-of-the-market-for-a-few-years, venture-funded platform.

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