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The Great Headphone Jack Conspiracy

It’s clear that Apple doesn’t like lots of different ports. Over the years, PC makers put everything that would fit and then some, legacy and current, without regard to how it impacted a product’s weight or form factor. Starting with the first iMac in mid-1998, Apple eliminated several ports, such as ADB, for a mouse and keyboard, LocalTalk, for printers, and SCSI, a nightmarish and temperamental protocol for storage devices.

Even floppy drives were history.

Now it took a year or two for people to realize that the venerable floppy was obsolete, not just because of the stingy amount of storage, but the abysmal lack of reliability. I can’t tell you how many times I confronted corrupted floppies on different Macs. Had I not had a backup, I would have lost plenty of data. Once Apple ejected floppy drives, people still bought external floppies and other floppy-based systems, at least the first two or three years.

The iMac introduced USB, a standard covering a number of different types of peripheral devices that had premiered on PC hardware but hadn’t gone anywhere. But once the iMac arrived, it didn’t take too many months before an avalanche of products appeared. And since the USB standard, unlike some that were Mac-only, worked just fine on a PC, more peripheral makers were able to build cross-platform products so long as they included Mac drivers.

So, yes, there was some level of pain until Mac users get accustomed to the new way of doing things, but it all worked out in the end. More recently, Apple has ditched FireWire from new Macs, although there are Thunderbolt to FireWire adapters, which means that one of my old backup drives still works.

Predictably, when Apple killed the 30-pin dock connector on iOS gear, there were loads of complaints. What about all those accessories people bought? Aside from being reversible, what advantage did Lightning offer, other than to sell adaptors? However, the digital connection supposedly has advantages going forward in the features Apple and its partner scan add to its devices.

The latest rumored episode of port ditching has not actually been confined by Apple. But it’s based on reports that prototypes of the next iPhone — presumably an iPhone 7 — will ship without a headphone port. Now the 3.5 mm jack has been in use since the 1950s, beginning on the first transistor radios, but it’s actually a miniatured version of the standard ¼-inch jack that dates back to the late 19th century. In other words, it’s very, very old.

So it stands to reason that it has to go.

Now other than being based on old technology, ditching the headphone jack may make it easier to waterproof the iPhone. All things being equal, that’s a huge positive, but I can see the pain. There’s a rumor to the effect that Apple will provide the same ear buds on the next iPhone, with a lightning adaptor. I suppose there will also be adaptors that will allow you to multitask the port, by connecting your ear bugs and charge your device at the same time. This advantage is similar to USB-C, which Apple can use for simultaneous charging and other functions on the MacBook.

As you might imagine, fear-mongering is in full force. One report has it that Apple wants to kill the port to increase profits, forgetting what it will cost to supply an adaptor. Besides, dumping a jack to add a dollar or two to the profit margins is absurd, but I read an article from someone who actually believes that to be true.

That person, who shall go named, also claimed that Apple doesn’t care about quality sound, which is why they are moving to all all-digital connector. But he seems to forget an inconvenient truth, which is that the audio on an iPhone, iPad and iPod touch is digital. The interface puts a DAC ahead of the analog headphone jack. It doesn’t make a practical difference if there’s an adaptor to a digital Lightning port, since you achieve the same result.

Does that mean Apple can’t improve audio? That’s a good question, but most of the people who complain of night and day differences when attempting to bypass Apple’s DAC, via a direct connection to an outboard digital processor from an iTunes AirPlay stream, usually can’t prove the claims. Double-blind listening tests seldom reveal these miraculous audible differences, or any audile differences. Even if slight differences can be verified, it has nothing to do with using a direct-to-Lightning connection instead of a headphone jack. Well, except that the digital port will be less breakable, and, as I said, easier to protect from moisture.

On the other hand, until Apple actually announces a feature, or the loss of a feature, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Even if those prototype iPhones are the real thing, they might not be final prototypes. Things might change before it’s released to manufacturing, but even if it’s not, get over it. It may really be time to ditch the 19th and 20th century technology and get with the 21st century.