Why Apple Removing The Audio Jack From The iPhone Would Be A Very, Very, Very, Bad Move

from the but-it'll-still-happen dept

It’s been rumored for months now that the next iPhone will be removing the standard analog headphone jack — the same jack that’s existed on portable audio devices for ages. It would immediately make a whole bunch of headphone and microphone products obsolete overnight for those who use iPhones. And while some have compared it to when Apple surprised everyone nearly two decades ago in removing the floppy drive from the iMac, this is quite different. The floppy drive really was pushing the end of its necessary existence, and with the internet and (not too long after) the rise of USB, the internal floppy drive seemed less and less important. But that’s not the case with the standard audio jack.

Back in June, Nilay Patel at the Verge had an excellent take on why this move would be user hostile in very dangerous ways, starting with the fact that forcing audio through the iPhone Lightning connection would mean DRM:

Oh look, I won this argument in one shot. For years the entertainment industry has decried what they call the “analog loophole” of headphone jacks, and now we?re making their dreams come true by closing it.

Restricting audio output to a purely digital connection means that music publishers and streaming companies can start to insist on digital copyright enforcement mechanisms. We moved our video systems to HDMI and got HDCP, remember? Copyright enforcement technology never stops piracy and always hurts the people who most rely on legal fair use, but you can bet the music industry is going to start cracking down on “unauthorized” playback and recording devices anyway. We deal with DRM when it comes to video because we generally don?t rewatch and take TV shows and movies with us, but you will rue the day Apple decided to make the iPhone another 1mm thinner the instant you get a “playback device not supported” message. Winter is coming.

With the latest rumors insisting that Apple is definitely doing this, Cory Doctorow has also weighed in to make the same point and go in much greater detail about how troubling this is:

Once all the audio coming out of an Iphone is digital — once there’s no analog output — Apple gets a lot more options about how it can relate to its competitors, and they’re all good for Apple and bad for Apple’s customers. Just by wrapping that audio in DRM, Apple gets a veto over which of your devices can connect to your phone. They can arbitrarily withhold permission to headphone manufacturers, insist that mixers be designed with no analog outputs, or even demand that any company that makes an Apple-compatible device must not make that device compatible with Apple’s competitors, so home theater components that receive Apple signals could be pressured to lock out Samsung’s signals, or Amazon’s.

What’s more, once Apple gets the ability to add DRM, the record industry gets the ability to insist that Apple use it (“A phaser on the mantelpiece in Act One must go off by Act 3” – Pavel Chekov, Star Trek: TOS). In 2007, Steve Jobs published his Thoughts on Music, in which he said, basically, that the record industry had forced Apple to put DRM in its ecosystem and he didn’t like it. The record industry is still made up of the same companies, and they still love DRM. Right now, an insistence on DRM would simply invite the people who wanted to bypass it for legal reasons to use that 3.5mm headphone jack to get at it. Once that jack is gone, there’s no legal way to get around the DRM.

Perhaps worst of all is the impact on security research: because the DMCA has been used to attack researchers who disclosed defects in DRM-restricted technologies, they are often unable or unwilling to come forward when they discover serious vulnerabilities in technologies that we rely on. The Iphone audio interface is two-way: it supports both input and output. A bug in that interface turns the phone to carry with you at all times, to all places, into a covert listening device. A DRM system on that interface makes that bug all-but-unreportable, guaranteeing that it will last longer and hurt more people before it finally becomes public.

As Cory notes, these are not hypothetical stories and fear-mongering, they’re all examples from what we’ve seen happen before, over and over again, when things are pushed into a DRM-based world. Cory is hoping that if Apple really does drop the audio jack — as many now expect — then it should simultaneously declare that the digital audio output is not “an effective means of access control,” which would then mean it’s not covered by the anti-circumvention laws of the DMCA. But, of course, does anyone actually expect Apple to do that? It has almost no incentive to unless the public rejects this situation in massive numbers, which seems unlikely.

Hopefully, those who make Android and other phones will not follow down this same path.

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Comments on “Why Apple Removing The Audio Jack From The iPhone Would Be A Very, Very, Very, Bad Move”

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84 Comments
Industrial Networking (user link) says:

Surely with Google and Bing brining out their new personal assistants which is almost 100% driven through voice recognition people are going to start to use this feature more and more often? I can see a day where texting is no required and it will all be done through voice recognitions. So I agree, I think it would be foolish to get rid of this feature.

trollificus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Starry-eyed tech utopianism!

I think it will be years before the all-important 19-25 demographic will accept a technology that can be used by parents and grandparents without routinely generating eye-rolling faux pas.

OTOH, the conversion of text about a song into actual audio bits of the song itself, could generate a mini-licensing scheme. The RIAA would have to cut the NSA in on the deal for access to those multi-billions of communications on your text-o-voice-o-phone device. After all, those mega data centers don’t build and maintain themselves!

Anonymous Coward says:

DMCA is a huge thing. But what bothers me more is the complete death of low end headphone market for new iPhone users. Possible all users.

Now manufacturers have to have two complete production lines. One for standard analog jacks and one for Apple. That alone is a substantial cost addition. Add to that the near guarantee that Apple will require the same sort of approval (licencing fee) for anyone they let use the new combined jack. So goodbye cheap disposable headphones.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Dystopian prediction.

The headphones for Iphones will need active digital electronics on board, that is they will be intelligent. They can also act a a sort of microphone. Next thing you know they will pair with the users ears, by taking a sonar mapping of the users ears. Pass them to someone else so that they can listen to a track, and they will refuse to play it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Currently, my favorite headphones for my Apple devices (noise isolating, built in mic) cost me $8. They’re not audiophile quality, but they’re something I can take with me anywhere and not worry about them getting destroyed (I just get another $8 pair).

The on-board electronics and Apple Tax guarantee that this $8 set of headphones will suddenly become a $48 set of headphones. Not something I look forward to.

HOWEVER, the arguments about “closing the analog hole” are a bit off. Speakers can’t read “digital”. At some point, there needs to be analog leads going to the diaphragm of the speakers, and these can just as easily be redirected to any type of analog jack. And there are plenty of companies around the world that would be more than happy to create such a thing; if Apple uses a USB-3-compatible connector and protocol, they can’t do anything to prevent other manufacturers from going this route.

And all that said: I actually connect my $8 headphones to a little Bluetooth dongle I keep in my pocket these days; I haven’t used my headphone jack on my phone in quite some time. As long as Apple isn’t killing Bluetooth audio, there’s only so much they can do with DRM. And Bluetooth is never going to be restricted from having analog out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

HOWEVER, the arguments about “closing the analog hole” are a bit off. Speakers can’t read “digital”. At some point, there needs to be analog leads going to the diaphragm of the speakers, and these can just as easily be redirected to any type of analog jack.

If DRM were implemented, the speakers would stop working if they detected they had been opened, if their impedance was off, etc.—they’d be required to, much the same way video card manufacturers have to detect attacks if HDCP is enabled.

And there are plenty of companies around the world that would be more than happy to create such a thing

It would be made illegal of course.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s already crypto in the bluetooth spec, so there’s no real reason to think they couldn’t, given some “minor” mods moving away from the bluetooth spec. Wouldn’t even (necessarily) require hardware mods – they could probably do it in software and retrofit it.

Backwards compatibility would be an issue though. “I’m sorry, your 2016 Chevy SU-X doesn’t have the Apple-Approved radio. That’ll be $4000 to upgrade.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m thinking double or triple pricing, but same idea.
What I hate the most about this is it is a clear anti-competitive movement by them and so many of my friends and family will gladly pay the costs because it is Apple and they can do no wrong.

I am not an Apple hater, I have an iPhone, an iPad and several other of their devices. They make amazing tech. But their movements in recent years have made switching to Android much more appealing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apple always has and always will do exactly as it pleases! there has never, as far as i recall, been a single court action against it and the completely non-competitive way it does business. even Microsoft has been told what it can and cant do over the way it locked Windows down to using Internet explorer, yet Apple forces customers to only do what it wants as far as what can be installed, what can be downloaded, used to download, what music and movies can go on the devices etc etc. i would really like to know how it has gotten away with this at all let alone for so long!!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“there has never, as far as i recall, been a single court action against it”

Google exists, you might want to use it to find the many examples of litigation against the company.

“even Microsoft has been told what it can and cant do over the way it locked Windows down to using Internet explorer”

Untrue. They were told not to illegally leverage its desktop OS monopoly position to gain unfair advantages over competitors in other software markets. Windows was not locked down to IE, but MS was been told to give providers of other browsers a level playing field. So, neither assertion you just made is true.

“what music and movies can go on the devices”

That’s an outright lie, of course. You’re limited to a single store within the device, but there’s nothing to stop you transferring content via a computer or via an app.

There’s plenty to criticise Apple for, let’s not make shit up, OK?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Market penetration

What that doesn’t take into consideration is the cost for switching to a different product.

For many pieces of software, you only get the version for a single platform, and that’s if that software exists for the other (though nowadays, there are is a lot more multi-platform software). I’m not sure if Mac developers still have to work around the one-button problem.

But Android and iOS products are certainly sold separately. I don’t know if you can even access media purchased on Google Play or The Windows Store on iOS.

So yeah, once you’ve been on a platform for a while you have a lot of disincentive to migrate. And if that’s not taken into consideration regarding antitrust, it damn well should be.

Groovy says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

At the whole world’s expense, just how fucking GREEDY does a company have to be? I mean WTF? They are going to screw their own customers and their ability to use analog audio to hook up to analog equipment at the horror beset upon their customer’s. THAT IS BAD FAITH and I will be the first to sign on to a multi-national class action lawsuit against Apple.

Anonymous Coward says:

May not be digital-only

We have no details yet. The USB-C connector, at least, has a concept of “alternate modes” which might allow it to transport analog audio via a simple passive adapter. That wouldn’t be so bad, especially if phone manufacturers included the adapter. It would give you an extra USB port when not using the headphones. (I don’t particularly trust Apple here, given their history of auth chips, but Android phones might do it right.)

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: May not be digital-only

The problem with this argument is, well, experience. DRM on digital devices inevitably come with the “optional” ability to disable analog output. And that “option” is inevitably selected.

High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) – the copy protection on Blu-Ray discs – is required to downgrade not just the video but the audio when sent to analog devices. And that’s when it’ll output to them at all.

Unlike your old stereo or VCR, your smartphone gets regular software updates. You may be able to use your old headphones with an adapter on day one, and everyone will be happy and the issue will go away. Until the DRM gets activated in a later update.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: ISO Standard Credibility Test FTFY

ISO Standard Credibility Test
The argument in favor of removing the audio jack doesn’t sound any less credible if you imagine it being voiced by Donald Trump standing behind a podium.

ISO Standard Credibility Test
The argument in favor of removing the audio jack doesn’t sound any MORE credible ESPECIALLY if you imagine it being voiced by Donald Trump standing behind a podium

Skeeter says:

Let's think this through, REALLY

Seriously? You listen to music on your iPhone and you think that the music has a DMCA threat from going wireless at your ear? FYI, it’s a PHONE, they can turn it on and listen ANY TIME THEY WANT TO without picking up a low wattage earpiece output, wireless though it may be. THE PHONE IS WIRELESS!

As for the mechanics of it in general, it driven moreso by the majority of the public who would prefer wireless headsets or wireless connectivity to a larger speaker. You can buy full ‘wireless amplifiers’ online for $22, that output 50-watts per channel RMS. That’s 100-watts (enough to deafen you in a small room).

Why are you making a big deal out of this? You lost your privacy when you didn’t stop DMCA, RIAA, and the myriad of other laws out there. You gave up your privacy when you didn’t protest the NSA and FISA courts allowing warrantless searches.

It’s a phone people, and EVERYONE IS ALREADY LISTENING to every word you said (and the NSA has it on recording in Provo, Utah, just to prove it).

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Other Devices

I know that there are bluetooth adapters that can extend the life of your $300 Bose headphones, but that’s inconvenient for many users.

There are also a host of non-headphone devices that will be made obsolete. Many companies took advantage of the headphone jack as a de facto I/O port. Their solutions will need to be upgraded, and will be more expensive now, and will require bluetooth, and worse: batteries and charging.

– Square or Paypal credit card readers
– Microphones
– Synchronized flash systems
– Selfie Stick remote shutter buttons
– Add-a-custom-buttons like Pressly

The floppy had universally better options, and was bad at its only purpose. Not so for the headphone port. I have a number of bluetooth headsets that are my primary way of connecting to the phone for media, but I STILL have plug-in headphones for hands-free voice calls. I use them for the pure simplicity and reliability of it.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

So Splice an Audio Bypass.

Back in the early 1980’s, I bought the last television set I would ever buy. The first thing I did was to take off the back, drill a hole in the side-wall, and solder in a stereo headphone jack (with both channels connected in parallel). By the time the television set became un-serviceable, due to mechanical play in the electro-mechanical tuner, tuner cards for computer had come along.

A pair of headphones ultimately has a couple of analog wire pairs leading to electromagnets, which push diaphragms back and forth to move air to make sound. You can splice in an audio jack without any particular difficulty.

Alternatively, you can make what old-time celluloid film-makers called a “Barney,” that is, a soundproofed box, in which you can put things which need to be sound-isolated., with the necessary access-holes, such as a noisy mechanical movie camera mechanism. Of course, you can also make a Barney to hold a headphone and a couple of microphones. In the old days, back in the early 1980’s, we used to connect computer terminals and modems to mainframes over telephone lines, using a telephone cradle designed along these lines: 1) dial up the mainframe’s modem number, using a rotary-dial telephone, 2) listen for the carrier tone, 3) on hearing the carrier tone, rapidly place the phone handset in the cradle, in the soundproofing rubber cups, and enter a couple of carriage-returns.

Thad (user link) says:

Hard to predict

While I don’t think most potential customers will look at the missing headphone jack in terms of DRM and accessibility, it’s clearly an issue in terms of compatibility with most people’s existing headphones, and you don’t need to know what the DMCA is to see that. iPhone sales are already in sharp decline, the next iPhone already has an uphill battle to convince customers they need to upgrade, and removing the headphone jack isn’t a value-add, it’s a value-subtract for the majority of customers.

Of course, if the next iPhone *does* sell poorly, that’s going to be down to a variety of factors, not just to a headphone jack. It may not be easy, or even possible, to gauge what impact the missing headphone jack has on sales.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that once the phone appears in stores, casual buyers *will* react strongly and clearly to the change. We won’t know until it happens.

Anonymous Coward says:

I used to work for apple.

The end-game is to have specific apple-only headphones for each generation of iPhone. So the connection in the iPhone 7 will work with iPhone 7 headphones, but iPhone 8 will have a slightly more ‘secure’ connection, which surprise, surprise, requires NEW headphones all over again.

Tim cook in multiple meetings discussed how to ‘lock in’ loyal customers and force them to buy Apple peripherals and this is the solution. Lock OUT third party bluetooth headphones / speakers etc. Charge a hefty licence to use their ‘special’ version of bluetooth and/or make people buy apple approved devices.

History girl says:

Re: Anonymous Coward and the lessons of History

So Apple has always been big on protecting its innovation and locking in it’s loyal customers. The idea of creating new peripherals that have to be purchased is frankly repeating the same exact issue that got it into trouble.

Macs were all about the intellectual property until an insider licensed its software, tweaked it and sold it as windows. Microsoft didn’t make hardware, they kept their plane in software — allowing hardware companies to license their software and essentially crowd apple out of the market for proprietary overpriced stuff. I might have to cut my losses at the 7, bite the bullet and leave my iphone behind. After all the years I’ve been with my iphone i hate to do it, but i think its time before they get any more user hostile.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

HDMI made it easy for the non-technical to hook up a device to their TV’s. It’s a one plug solution vs. either 5 plugs for Component+stereo audio or 3 plugs for DVI connector+stereo audio. I think that there was a DVI plug with audio. But, there again, what non-techie would know what type of DVI their TV had.

Simplicity wins.

Anonymous Coward says:

Goodbye Apple, hello Android

I have several friends that dropped the iPhone when they changed their cables a couple years back. Their investment in cables and compatible devices were rendered obsolete overnight. Rather than dive back into iOS, they switched to Android and they have not looked back.

I suspect if Apple does this, many more will head over to Android.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

We did this with laptops and USB to eliminate the optical drive.

Let me first disclose that I abhor the 3.5mm stereo audio jack. I have a mid-high-end Soundblaster audio card in my desktop system that I have to fight with every time I insert my headphones.*

Similarly, I’ve been watching mp3 players and before that cassette tape players fail consistently due to that stupid audio jack. They just don’t last. During the semi-user-serviceable 90s, I’d be able to open up the unit and repair it. But not so, now. Creative labs customer service has become rather irate with me for daring to suggest I might service my own devices rather than paying for their outrageous repair fees.

But yes, right now it’s the only standard we have.

If Apple was really interested in minimizing phone thickness, they could feature multiple lightning ports and (as Anon Coward suggested) a lightning to 2.5 or 3.5 adapter.

Someone, probably someone in China, will make one anyway, much like the lightning-to-USB ports.

In my fantasy world this would push more people toward Android since Apple users look more and more like rich abused cultists. The higher and higher Apple builds its garden walls, the less nice they are to those trapped inside.

* I tried adding a leave-in extension but it automatically cuts out the speakers when even the extension is in, and I don’t know how to turn that feature off, and govern the volumes by soft mixer controls. Not for want of looking.

Anonymous Coward says:

It looks like if you want to play music through your car stereo, you will need to get an Android phone, as an analog aux input is needed in order to play it through the system.

One time when I had a rental car, the stereo had no aux input, so I could not play music from my android throgh the stereo, without using a small FM modulator, which can have problems if a nearby radio station is using the same frequency.

John85851 (profile) says:

Why is anyone really surprised by this decision?

Apple has a long history of changing their specs and making hardware obsolete. We’re using floppy drives as an example, but a better one would be the change in the power connector from the iPhone 4 to iPhone 5. Suddenly, the port was smaller, which meant ALL of the existing peripherals no longer worked. But, surprise, all the hardware makers were on top of it and ready to sell everyone new products with the smaller connector.
And what was the reason for this change? The size of the phone didn’t get smaller- in fact, the iPhone 5, 6, and 6s are *bigger* than the 4.

I Don't Care Either Way says:

One Bad Apple

Hopefully, those who make Android and other phones will not follow down this same path.

You don’t think Google is wringing its hands over this, being hardly able to stop the drool and wetting themselves? This will give them at least a couple years to capitalize on the backlash against Apple when Apple forces DRM on their entire customer base.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Apple

“If they think it is a good idea there must be a reason behind it. Apple does not do things for no reason.”

But, it might well be a good idea for them or a related 3rd party without being a good idea for everyone else. Apple don’t do things for no reason at all, but they aren’t opposed to doing something that negatively impacts the consumer in the long term.

That’s the focus of the article – what Apple are doing here might be very good for Apple, the RIAA and Beats. It may be very bad for the consumer. Maybe not, but that’s worth investigating.

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