I suggested the fuss about the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 is misguided. Misguided because the fuss is focused on resisting change, not focused on ensuring the right change.
Wireless only limits quality, is not always convenient for charging which means a cable system is still required. Changing from 3.5mm audio to a digital connection, may simply be a sign of the times, but is this the right change? For Apple it may be right, but for the industry, and for Apple customers, this is simply the wrong step. Some Apple consumers will be left abandoned, that is certain, the question is which ones?
Thunderbolt and Lightning (no ‘very frightening’ puns please).
Macbook = usb-c/thunderbolt, iPhone = lightning
If you have a ‘new’ 12″macbook, then you have a device with a single usb-c connector. If you have an iPhone 7, you have a device with a single ‘lightening’ connector. You can now buy headphones which will connect to either device. Why do these two devices use two competing standards to basically perform the same role?
The usb-c connect is the same connector as “thunderbolt”, the third connection used by apple devices. In fact usb-c could be described as “thunderbolt-3 lite”, since it uses compatible cables, compatible signals, but is simply not as fast as “thunderbolt-3”. These two standards have effectively merged in a compatible way. Lightning however, has not.
Industry apart from Apple: usb-c/thunderbolt3 for all devices
It could be argued that ‘lighning’ is a standard for phones and tablets, and usb-c/thunderbolt3 is a standard for laptops. However apart from Apple, every other major phone maker is now using usb-c for phones and tablets.
Who uses USB-C/Thunderbolt3?
LG, HTC, Huawei, HP, Samsung, Oppo, LeEco, Motorola and Vivo all now support USB-C on phones. Basically, now every manufacturer other than Apple. USB-C is being roll-out among all major computer brands as well, and one of the first laptops to use the standard was from Apple. So everyone but Apple uses this standard on phones, and Apple also uses the standard, but on devices more expensive than phones.
What about Thunderbolt3?
Thunderbolt has always been a very high performance connection, but prior to Thunderbolt 3, Apple has been the only major manufacturer really use Thunderbolt. This has now changed and almost all the major manufacturers have released products with the technology. Although the Thunderbolt 3 standard is still young, uptake is already much stronger. The next chipset from Intel will support Thunderbolt 3 from the CPU chipset, which should boost uptake even further. Previous Thunderbolt connectors were shared with ‘DisplayPort’, another technically sound but not widely used standard, which made Thunderbolt and upgraded from of display-port. Now for Thunderbolt3, the standard is sharing connector with USB-C and has also become an upgraded USB-C port which has far wider recognition and appeal. Thunderbolt has been backed by both Intel and Apple, and now with compatibility with a popular standard as a base, Thunderbolt 3 is well poised to really take off. But since every Thunderbolt3 connection is also a USB-C connection, and Apples commitment to Thunderbolt means unless they abandon yet another standard, even Apple will be adding even more connections to USB-C with all their Thunderbolt capable devices.
So Thunderbolt at least brings even more devices to USB-C. It may succeed beyond that and even provides an evolution for USB-C, but regardless, Thunderbolt3 expands the group of devices supporting a single standard for connection.
The holy grail.
The dream that digital interconnect can offer is: one connection type for everything.
At one time computers had different connectors for printers, for keyboards and for mice. Rs-232 cables to interconnect other things. All of these merged into USB, but we still had video cables which became HDMI, Display-port and then Thunderbolt. High speed devices used firewire, SCSI, PCI express, SATA, eSATA…..
We could potentially use USB-C/Thunderbolt3 to replace every standard listed here except perhaps SATA, although even that could now also be a candidate. The same connect can also be be use to power almost everything that has a power usage and voltage such that battery power is feasible.
A dream? Well USB took huge first steps and in theory USB-C/Thunderbolt3 can take us much closer.
Loss of the holy grail?
The USB-C/lightning3 connector has the promise to become one connector for almost everything. But not everyone wants that dream. A large company like Apple can possibly interfere with this ‘connector holy grail’ with their own proprietary technology. The problem for Apple with one connector for all is this connector holy grail does not generate revenues for Apple nor lock in consumers to Apple products. If every one uses the same connection for everything that does not lock in the consumers or generate royalties. Aside from revenue and lock in for Apple, in all other respects USB-C/Thunderbolt3 is superior to Lighting. So perhaps now instead of one connector for everything, we have one connector for everything except some uses by Apple.
The Lightning system even fails at being ‘one system for all Apple’, since Apple also has uses where USB-C/Thunderbolt3 provides the better solution. The 12″ Macbook pro uses USB-C and every high performance Apple computer included Thunderbolt.
From now, two versions of many products will be required. An ‘Apple’ version, earning licence fees for Apple, and a version for everyone else. Perhaps the extra expense of the licence will raise the price of the Apple version providing additional exclusivity?
Will car makers start selling two versions of cars, one with a USB-C connector and a different version with a Lighting connector? The reality is that for power and many devices, the other end of the cable will be USB, and increasingly USB-C. The USB-C connector will probably be the standard anyway. Even Apple sells chargers with a USB-C socket, and cables to charge a Lighting phone from these sockets.
Back to the iPhone7
So this means the iPhone7 is moving from the open standard 3.5mm headphone jack to the proprietary Lightning connection, at the same time the rest of the industry is moving to a ‘one connector for all’ USB-C/Thunderbolt3 connection. This is not because Lightning is a superior system, even Apple backs Thunderbolt as the standard for high performance. Perhaps Lightning enables being even thinner than USB-C/Thunderbolt, but all the thinnest phones (iPhone7 7.3mm thick, Vivo X5 and Oppo R5 both under 4.8mm) use USB-C/Thunderbolt. There are reports Apple has had to face legal claims (search ‘lawsuits’ on this page) over the durability of Lightning so that does not seem a strong argument either.
The Pluses for Apple.
So why bother with a special proprietary additional connect system just for Apple? More money to be paid by consumers. Lower costs for Apple. That is all I can see.
What I am considering is the pluses of moving audio to Lightning compared to moving to an industry standard USB-C/Thunderbolt. I am not arguing for not moving to digital. and and staying with the consideration of the 3.5mm connector. If apple had replaced the 3.5mm headphone connector with a USB-C connector, then they would not have saved production costs, but they cannot save yet anyway as they ship an adaptor. For now, they added an adaptor, but that will stop. On the revenue side, the bigger point is that by forcing the proprietary Lightning port to be used for headphones, Apple can earn revenues from the licence fees which must be paid by headphone makers and anyone else using the Apple proprietary connector in their products. This move should drive headphone sales, and the largest mobile phone headset company is actually owned by Apple. Possibly people with Apple computers as well as phones, now need a a different headset for each device now? Even more sales? One headset (that would also work with any non-Apple phone) to use with the computer, and a proprietary Apple headset to use with the phone?
Certainly another plus for Apple is that the barrier to consumers moving to other phones moves up yet even one more step. Change phone brands after you have just spent money on a headset that only works with Apple products?
The Pluses for the consumer?
I can see arguments for moving to a digital standard, but for a consumer, what is the plus for moving to the Lighting standard over moving to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 standard?
Flexibility? Definitely not! Speed and performance? Again definitely not. The connector is thinner, but far thinner phones than iPhone use USB-C. The fact that the consumer will not confuse the headphones for their computer, with the headphones for their phone? I fail to see a positive point where this benefits the consumer.
Wrong for Consumers.
The choice of the Lighting as the connection for audio is not in the interests of consumers. The biggest potential advantage of a digital system ‘one connector for all’ is deliberately lost in the name of proprietary royalties and lock in. Moving to digital to audio should also mean moving to a common industry standard.
Very likely Interim.
A positive about Apple is they generally adopt and lead with strong technology, and having a solution that is lower tech than the rest of the industry is simply not Apple. For this reason, it is very likely Apple will move in future to Thunderbolt. The 3.5mm plug was around for a long time, but it offered ubiquity. The real replacement will most likely also be ubiquitous.
Some Apple Customers will be abandoned.
To move away from Lighting for headphones, Apple will leaves some apple customers with an abandoned technology. But to not move away will leave other customers (e.g. 12″ macbook or any apple notebook user really) also with dead end technology. So no matter which way they move next, some consumers will be abandoned. The least damage would be done by moving audio now to USB-C/Thunderbolt3, but they will probably dig a bigger whole first.
What can a consumer do?
So what can consumers do? Firstly, I can suggest that consumers stop lobbying for Apple to keep the 3.5mm connector, but instead push for Apple to support a USB-C connection for audio across all devices. Apple are not going to want to listen, as it would mean to forgo additional licence revenues on their inferior propriety standard, but they have been known to listen to consumers before.
As a consumer, USB-C could well win eventually. I mean even Apple sells power-blocks with a USB-C socket, why should every USB socket suddenly become lighting and USB? And if USB-C sockets are everywhere….
If the failure of Lighting to actually deliver any benefit does create negative publicity and every thing moves to USB-C/Thunderbolt I guess that will provide an excuse to throw away and replace all the lighting peripherals Apple has sold to me or generated licence revenues from in the interim. Then I can buy new ones!
Or is it workable to put a Lighting-to-USB-C/Thunderbolt dongle on my headphone cable, and buy a USB-C headphone instead of a Lightning one? Then I could use those headphones with everything….even an apple laptop
Is moving to USB-C/Thunderbolt audio for all my devices and using adaptors the best strategy? Can I adapt Apple devices to the dream?