Catching Up with Apple

September 16th, 2016

Back in 1998, Apple did the impossible, so to speak. With the introduction of the first iMac, the famous Bondi Blue model — Apple ditched the ADB, LocalTalk and SCSI ports, and replaced them all with USB. This was USB 1.0, thus fairly slow, but usable for anything but a hard drive. The floppy drive vanished, and you can bet lots of people complained.

True, there were adapters for your old input devices, printers and drives that mostly worked. If you had to have a floppy drive — and who didn’t in those days? — you could buy an external USB device instead. This gave third-party manufacturers a chance to try out a new format, SuperDisk (no resemblance to Apple’s SuperDrive optical devices), which used media similar to a floppy. But the capacity was 120MB at first, later doubling to 240MB. But it never caught on and died a few years later.

The floppy drive was quickly dispatched from other Macs. Other portable drive formats, such as Iomega’s Jaz, hung on for a few years. Eventually optical drives with CDs and DVDs, along with small bus-powered external hard drives, served the needs for higher capacities and easy transport. A tiny Flash or thumb drive is the ultimate in portability nowadays with capacities usually ranging from 16GB to 256GB.

Clearly Steve Jobs and Apple’s hardware engineers realized floppies had to go. In addition to the tiny capacity, they weren’t so reliable. Eventually the PC industry caught up.

Over the years Apple has moved from FireWire to Thunderbolt and faster versions of USB. The USB-C format used on the MacBook and some PCs has the advantage of using a reversible cable and managing multiple protocols.

Every step of the way, customers were irritated, or outraged, and the critics complained that Apple didn’t care about its high-paying customers. It was all about finding ways to ditch ports to make products slimmer and lighter, and inconvenience users. With the move from the dock connector to the all-digital and reversible Lightning format on mobile gear, you can bet that there were concerns about what would happen to all those old accessories. The solution was to get an adapter. After shipping hundreds of millions of Lightning-enabled iPhones and iPads, people mostly got used to it.

From a technology standpoint, Apple evidently believes that making these changes to connection ports serves the needs of future products by providing more design flexibility and, one hopes, reliability. Well, except for people who have Lightning cables that have become frayed near the plugs, a not uncommon occurrence.

Apple’s latest move, perhaps the most controversial of all, was to ditch the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Unlike the other connection ports, which arrived during the personal computer era, the 3.5mm headphone jack dates back to the 1950s, based on technology dating back to the late 19th century. The major change for the miniature jack was the move from mono to stereo. It’s simple, it works, at least when you haven’t accidentally broken the pin on a headphone plug.

This move is just the beginning. The next iPad will no doubt come bereft of a headphone jack, and there’s already speculation that future Macs will come without them too. But don’t forget that there is no Lightning port on a Mac — at least not yet.

Apple Senior VP Philip Schiller used the “provocative” word “courage” when explaining the reasoning behind the change at the iPhone 7 rollout event. That got the dander up on the part of some journalists, because of the hubris. Or because they felt Apple made this move more for design reasons than practicality, reliability and technology. But the headphone jack can be a point of failure. It’s easy to push or bend the headphone plug, only to have it break while it’s connected; it’s often impossible to remove. So you’re left with a serious repair bill. It happened to me once years ago, at a time when it was possible for a skilled technician to repair a PowerBook on the component level. Apple would have charged me hundreds of dollars to replace the logic board.

But people survived.

Apple is looking to a wireless future, where your iPhone, your iPad and your Mac can exist mostly without connecting to anything, including a charger. Imagine being able to use a Mac Pro without plugging it into the wall socket, connecting external RAID drives, or attaching printers. Well, we can already use printers wirelessly in a way that’s hardly noticeable. High speed drives? Not quite, but soon. Every time, I confront the wiring nightmare on the floor behind my main computer desk, I fervently wish it was already happening.

Today, the iPhone 7 is supplied a headphone jack to Lightning adapter. It’s $9 separately, if you fear the loss of the one you have. I expect Apple will continue to offer such adapters for a while, but eventually they won’t, just as they killed the Rosetta PowerPC conversion app on the operating system formerly known as OS X some years back. Apple does not believe training wheels should be permanent.

It may probably take two or three years for Apple to fully realize a wireless future, but when it arrives, you’ll soon come to appreciate the advantages. And the freedom.

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4 Responses to “Catching Up with Apple”

  1. Paul Roberts says:

    Good write-up!

    One additional observation… Ditching the headphone jack enabled them to make the phones water resistant! That’s a HUGE plus.

  2. dfs says:

    “The next iPad will no doubt come bereft of a headphone jack, and there’s already speculation that future Macs will come without them too.” Problem with removing the headphone jack from Macs would be impact on audiophiles. I use my jack to bypass my iMac’s built-in audio circuitry and substitute a DAC device and feed the signal to a pair of external speakers. The results are dramatically better than what the iMac is capable of delivering. And plenty of audiophiles would not consider Bluetooth sound quality an acceptable substitute for this hard-wired solution.

  3. Kaleberg says:

    The 3.5mm jacks on Macs and Airport Extremes are also support optical digital audio output. That’s not something useful with headphones, if only because optical cables aren’t very flexible. Still a lot of audio gear uses an optical connector. This might delay the removal of the 3.5mm jack until more audio users start switching to wireless.

    One reason Apple waited this long before canning the 3.5mm audio only jack is that the sales of wireless headsets have finally overtaken up with wired sales. In other words, Apple is just following the market. Apple ditching the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone might spur more audio manufacturers to start using WiFi or an improved Bluetooth protocol. Already wireless speaker sales are ramping up. When wireless speakers become the shopper’s default, we’ll see Apple ditch the optical output.

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