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”.