Analysing Apple Ditching the 3.5mm Connector Pt. 1

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I’ve been struggling with this rumour for days. Here’s an article about it for more information. Basically Apple is rumoured to be ditching the 3.5mm connector in the next iPhone, leaving Lightning and Bluetooth as the only apparent connections left for audio devices. I’m struggling to take this lightly - as you can judge by the word count and an incoming Part 2 - as it’s such an Apple-like decision.

I tried weighing the pros and cons and writing a post around that. But then I came across this great article by Graham Spencer for MacStories that’s written around the effects and what Apple should do when this is implemented. (It’s premised that it’s a matter of when, not if - and I totally agree.)

There are two big questions he raises that I’d like to address. Considering the premise, these two are probably the most important to ask. These are: what will come in the box, and what will people need to buy to reduce friction? I think that the best way to answer these questions are to further look into what Spencer has touched upon: Apple’s willingness to offer adapters and reduce licensing costs.

Adapters

It should be noted that Apple has made somewhat controversial decisions like this in the past - for example, getting rid of floppy drives, CD drives, not including a physical keyboard on the iPhone, and most recently, getting rid of almost all ports bar one, a USB-C port, with the MacBook. Let’s look at that last one.

While we’re not far detached from the product’s launch, I’ve heard little to no news of customer complaints regarding the lack of ports, which was the opposite of expectations at the time. Here’s the interesting thing, though. It doesn’t come with a USB-C adapter for more regularly-used ports. They don’t even offer one to purchase. Clearly Apple is trying to reshape habits and our idea of peripherals with this specific decision. (Keep this objective in mind, as it is a motif if we’re to think of Apple’s string of success since Jobs’s return in 1997 as a narrative.)

Now, let’s assume that Apple is riding on this apparent victory and thinks they can take this a notch higher by taking out the 3.5mm port from the next iPhone. What incentivises them to include an adapter this time? Goodwill? That’s what Spencer proposes:

 

"These adapters would be cheap as chips for Apple to make and the amount of goodwill this could generate is surely worth it."

 

But wouldn’t it have also been goodwill to have included an adapter - or to have created an option to buy/claim cheap adapters - with the MacBook? As said previously, that decision was based on reshaping habits.

It depends on what Apple hopes to achieve with this decision. They could be trying to reshape habits again, but I think there's also an element of engineering innovation that they’re aiming to enable by severing their commitment to the 3.5mm connector.

People have speculated that it’s to make the iPhone even thinner, expressed as a more internal-facing desire than a user-facing desire. But that argument falls short immediately considering that even thinner Apple devices adopt the same connector, most notably the current iPods.

As noted by AC on Twitter, it’s more likely that volume would be reduced in the bottom bezel. Assuming that the top bezel is the size that it is for symmetry’s sake, that could be reduced too. I think the main benefits of this is to have the screen to appear larger, thus more immersive, and to reduce the weight of the device without making the device even thinner. (Although I think they’re still finding ways to make the next iPhone design thinner.)

Now back to adapters. If they’re making this decision to simply make the iPhone better engineering-wise, then it’s more likely that the proposals made by Spencer in the article could come true. Maybe not every single one. I reckon that Apple won’t give adapters away, or offer them for $5, or even include more than one in the box. (Regarding that last one; if I could put my Jony Ive hat on for a second, there’s something inelegant about offering more than one adapter. Perhaps that’s why the Apple Pencil doesn’t come with a second cap.)

I think Apple will be offering adapters one way or another. Surely they should make it a better experience than with the MacBook, although I don’t expect it to be that much better. There’s still a little of that ulterior motive - weaning the masses from the standards of yesteryear - behind this decision.

MFi costs

This is another approach Apple could take to reduce friction, this time in terms of cost to the end customer of getting new audio devices.

In case you didn’t know, manufacturers that want to make Lightning compatible devices, most notably Lightning cables, have to pay a hefty cost to Apple if they want to adopt the Lightning standard. The licensing program is called Made for iPhone. These costs are passed onto the customer, so if you’re wondering why iPhone cables and other Apple accessories (despite being third-party) are so darn expensive, this is why. Otherwise, manufacturers have to work around it, although they’re often unreliable. If you’re in China and spot multi-coloured Lightning cables (some of which might light up) at a random market - which you always will - those ones will probably stop working after a couple of days. The ones that light up might make a decent nightlight, though.

The decision to remove the 3.5mm connector will affect headphone manufacturers, and force them to adopt the Lightning standard or Bluetooth. If they’re to pay the MFi costs and adopt Lightning, headphones can get more expensive, and the only alternative would be Bluetooth or the headphone equivalent of Chinese multi-coloured Lightning cables.

Or maybe Apple could announce a new, AirPlay-esque standard alongside the iPhone 7 for wireless headphones. Perhaps they could make the entry costs cheaper than MFi licensing and AirPlay. (Yes, manufacturers of AirPlay-compatible devices have to pay a fee to Apple as well, which is under MFi.)

Apple will need to make decisions that not only make the switch from 3.5mm to something else frictionless for customers, but headphone manufacturers as well. The very least they could do is reduce costs somehow, as its inevitable that somewhere profitability would be compromised. Almost completely, these compromises would least affect Apple, and it’d be a little worrying if they weren’t made.

 

In the next post, a look at further implications while considering scale, and a design perspective…