For months, there’ve been rumors that Apple would remove the ubiquitous 3.5mm headphone jack from its next-generation iPhone. Those rumors got another boost yesterday when Cirrus Logic unveiled its new MFi Headset Development Kit. The new development board is “designed to help OEMs quickly develop new Lightning-based digital headsets” and is already available to order.
Cirrus Logic claims that the new kit will make it easier to move from analog connections to digital hardware and improve audio quality thanks to an integrated DAC. Digital audio’s other purported advantage is the potential to use custom equalizers to fine-tune audio.
The new dev kit contains a form factor reference design, a debug board, MCU programming, and audio performance measurement tools. The company’s PR also notes that the “design can be adapted to any headset form factor, including earbuds and over-the-ear designs.”
As rumors of the headphone jack’s imminent removal have grown, so has the pushback from a variety of sources. While there may be some small benefit to removing the 3.5mm jack, such as making the phone easier to waterproof and simplifying the internal design, there are ample reasons not to take this step — even for a company like Apple, which has a reputation for removing ports and moving to new standards before the rest of the market.
The argument is simple: Dumping the 3.5mm headphone jack means breaking compatibility with literally decades of earbuds and headphones, including expensive third-party sets that existing customers already use and prefer. It splits the Android and iPhone markets between two different headphone standards, and it prevents users from charging the device and listening to audio at the same time.
Apple may have bet that it could get away with the single-port standard based on overall reaction to its MacBook, which also offers just one USB Type-C port, but there are significant differences between the two scenarios. First, Apple still kept the headphone jack on that system, and second, the mechanics of managing a port multiplier for the single USB-C connection are rather different in a laptop compared to a pocket.
Bluetooth earbuds are a potential workaround for this issue, but they’re not a perfect fix. Not only are they somewhat more expensive, leaving Bluetooth enabled on an iDevice has a non-trivial impact on battery life, but Bluetooth earbuds or headphones also need to be recharged on a regular basis.
Eliminating the headphone jack might give Apple more room to make the next-generation iPhone slightly thinner, but could also lead to a larger camera bulge and minimal actual utility. If you use a smartphone case, there’s essentially no advantage to shaving another millimeter off the phone itself.
I’ve generally resisted the urge to jump on the “Apple ran out of ideas after Steve Jobs died” bandwagon, mostly because I think the problems facing Apple have nothing to do with innovation, and more to do with maturing markets and the end of conventional semiconductor scaling (both Moore’s Law and Dennard scaling). But if the only thing Apple can think of to do for an iPhone 7 is remove a port that virtually everyone prefers to keep, the company is making a significant mistake. While I tend to use Bluetooth earbuds myself, I see no value in removing a ubiquitous jack that helps guarantee universal compatibility with everything from high-end cans to a pair of simple earbuds you can pick up in a pinch. No one wants to carry an adapter to provide basic functionality that was integrated into previous devices, and if that’s the “improvement” Apple is going to lead with this generation, it may drive people away from upgrading this cycle.