Apple Jacks The Headphone Port

Jun 9, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 9:54 am

Apple may be set to end its use of the standard 3.5mm headphone connector — the mini plug — in favor of its proprietary connector, the Lightning port. If it was to do that, new iPhones, iPads and iPods wouldn't work with old headphones. It's had more than a few industry folks and Apple fanatics upset, to say the least.

To make sense of the issue, All Things Considered contacted a couple of writers in the field. Host Audie Cornish spoke with Gordon Kelly, a contributor to Forbes, about the technological and business implications of Apple's switch. He says the Lightning port could theoretically improve audio specifications and additional "smart headphone" functionality, and that the company has little to lose — with a lot of profit to potentially gain. You can hear that conversation at the audio link above.

Cornish also recently sat down with 9to5Mac writer Jordan Kahn to discuss why the Lightning port might be good for consumers in the long run and how Apple has always been ahead of the industry game. You can read a transcript of that conversation below.

Explain how you learned about this. What's the sign that Apple might make this change?

Apple has introduced these new guidelines for manufacturers that allow them to build headphones that connect to an iPhone or iPad through the Lightning connector. That's the same small connector on the bottom of an iPhone or iPad that is currently used to charge the device. Apple first introduced the connector a couple years ago with the iPhone 5 to replace its old 30-pin connector.

Now that Apple is allowing companies to build headphones that connect with the Lightning connector, that might be the first hint that Apple could remove that old, legacy headphone jack from devices down the road.

Even the hint or rumor of something like this seems to put a scare in markets, right? Because essentially you can leave a bunch of devices orphans when they change technology. Everyone else's devices can become obsolete.

It's a possibility. If we look at past examples of similar things Apple has done, usually they come out with an adapter solution that will allow these new Lightning headphones to work with your legacy device that still uses the headphone jack or vice versa. I'd imagine we'll see solutions like that at least for a few years, until people make the transition to the new technology.

The speculation is heightened, because Apple just paid around $3 billion for the headphone company Beats Electronics. Does this news help make sense of that deal?

Certainly, if the new Lightning headphones are something that Apple is going to push as its next innovation in audio. That'll, I imagine, be something that trickles down to Beats, and I imagine Beats would come out with a pair of Lightning headphones. We'll have to see where Apple takes it and what manufacturers do with it.

There was a lot of speculation that the Beats deal was more about the streaming music service, but I think that Apple has made it pretty clear that they're also interested in the headphones side of the business. If they are really interested in pushing these new Lightning headphones, I think Beats would be the perfect outlet to do that.

Obviously, this goes way beyond Apple, right? You're talking about a legacy technology — the headphone jack — that's been around for ages. What's the reason for Apple fiddling around with it?

I think that the Lightning connector does provide some benefits to headphone manufacturers. One of those is the ability to draw power from the iPhone. Right now, when a company makes a pair of headphones that have high-end audio processing features like active noise cancellation, they actually have to build a battery into the headphones. With the Lightning connector, they'll be able to draw power from the device itself. That could save manufacturers money and bring these high-end audio features to cheaper headphones. So it might be a win for consumers at the end of the day, depending on what manufacturers do with the technology.

How big a deal is it when Apple moves from an industry standard?

They've never been shy about doing it in the past — the disk drive on their Macbooks, the Flash in the browser on their iPhones. It does cause a bit of a stink among consumers and reviewers when the change first happens, but Apple usually tries to be ahead of the curve and predict what technologies are going to become legacy technologies. And with the examples we've just mentioned, they've been successful with it.

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Now some more tech news that could turn the music world on its headphones. Apple may be set to end its use of the standard headphone connector in favor of its lightning port. That's the input for charging new iPhones. The news came from Jordan Kahn at a blog called "9 to 5 Mac."

JORDAN KAHN: Apple's introduced these new guidelines for manufacturers that allow them to build headphones that connect to an iPhone or an iPad pad through the lightning connector. That might be the first hint that Apple could remove that old legacy headphone jack from devices down the road.

CORNISH: If they do that, new iPhones, iPads and iPods pods won't work with the old headphone jack. It could be a big industry upset. For decades, the minijack has been the standard for all kinds of audio equipment. So why change it? We asked Gordon Kelly, who wrote about it for Forbes.

GORDON KELLY: There's two main reasons for doing this. On paper you can get a higher specification of audio out of the lightning port than you can out of the headphone jack. It's minimal, but on paper you could do that. It could be part of marketing. The other side to this, is that they would be able to, say, bring new functionality. Say you were listening to Spotify - you could connect your headphones, and through the extra functionality of the lightning port, it could work out where you were or what mood you said you were in, and it could start to adjust things for it. You could have a podcast, plug in your headphones - it checks your favorite podcast, makes sure downloads things as you need it. So there's all sorts of functionality which can potentially come with the lightning Jack.

CORNISH: And then, of course, Apple paid around three billion dollars for the headphone company Beats Electronics. Does this make that deal make more sense to you?

KELLY: It makes a lot more sense. When you look at Beats as a purely technical product, it very rarely wins when you come to out-and-out sound quality for the value. It's become a fashion statement. It's become a brand you want to be associated with. Well, the interesting thing is if they go down the lightning connector route, the first thing they're going to need is partners. They don't get any bigger than having Beats on board as a launch partner for a lightning headphone.

CORNISH: So looking ahead to, say, the iPhone six, is this a technology we can expect to see there?

KELLY: I'm sure Apple's not going to rush this straight in. It's too knee-jerk. What Apple will do is they will look to introduce this as a luxury option on the iPhone. Whether be the iPhone six, whether it become available slightly after the iPhone six, this will be something that will be rolled out over time. I'm sure that they won't drop the iPhone - the 3.5 millimeter jack straightaway.

CORNISH: There's another legacy technology that Apple tried to do away with which is the password, right? They came up with the fingerprint sensor on the phone. And that didn't exactly, like, revolutionize the entire smart phone industry. I mean, could this backfire on them?

KELLY: I think there is the chance that it can backfire. But you have to look at it from Apple's perspective which is, it's largely shot to nothing. You can keep the 3.5 mil jack on. You can make headphones for the lightning port. You can promote all the benefits for the lightning port. And if people don't go for it, they just stick with the 3.5 mil jack and Apple slowly fades it back out again. But what happens is if consumers do get convinced - and initially based on the articles I've written people are very, very skeptical. But if you do convince people, Apple is in a win-win situation. You fade out the 3.5 mil jack. You put it as to lightning only, and you have a whole new profit margin.

CORNISH: That's Gordon Kelly. He wrote about Apple's headphone connector for Forbes. Gordon, thanks so much.

KELLY: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Your listening to all things considered from NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.