WHEN Apple shows off its latest iPhone today in San Francisco, it will answer a question it has not had to address in years.
The iPhone has traditionally shipped with a pair of Apple’s iconic earbuds, made famous in early advertising for the iPod music player. But tech analysts and industry bloggers, citing leaks from Apple’s Asian suppliers, say it looks like the tech giant has decided to do away with the analogue headphone jack in the next iPhone.
That means the earbuds themselves are in for a revamp, one that could hint at Apple’s plans for expanded use of wireless technology.
iPhone 7 incremental changes
The headphone jack is drawing attention partly because there might not be many other major changes in this year’s iPhone. The new models - the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, if Apple sticks to its usual convention - are expected to offer faster processors, more memory and improved cameras.
But despite a recent dip in iPhone sales, most Apple watchers expect the company to save its next big overhaul for 2017, the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone’s release.
Though it might not seem dramatic, eliminating the 3.5mm analogue jack would be controversial.
On the plus side, it could let Apple make the iPhone slightly thinner and possibly waterproof; it might also free up space for other components.
But it also means future iPhone buyers will need new headsets that use a digital connection. That could just mean changing the headset cord so that it plugs into the same port that recharges the device.
Or it could herald an Apple commitment to wireless earbuds that connect to the phone via a technology such as Bluetooth.
Apple already sells wireless headsets from Beats Electronics, which it acquired two years ago for $3 billion.
Why headphones matter
For many people, listening to music and watching video constitutes one of the main uses for a smartphone.
Today’s wireless Bluetooth headsets, however, can be clunky to set up and sometimes randomly drop their phone connections. And no headphone jack means that existing headsets won’t work with the new iPhones without an adaptor.
It’s also not clear how you would plug in your headset if you are already charging the phone. Finally, Apple uses a proprietary design for its charging port, known as “Lightning”. So new headphones that plug into that port won’t be compatible with devices made by Apple’s competitors.
Old tech on Apple’s hit list
Apple has a history of pre-emptively doing away with older technologies.
However, it isn’t the first company to do away with the headphone jack.
Already this year, Lenovo’s Motorola division and Chinese smartphone maker LeEco have released phones without analogue audio jacks, relying instead on cords that plug into a new digital port known as USB-C - which, of course, is different from Apple’s Lightning port. Some argue that digital connections provide higher quality sound.
Our wireless future
Some believe Apple’s real goal is to move people away from cords and plugs altogether. Apple has already cut the number of ports on its latest MacBooks, encouraging owners to use wireless features like Apple’s AirDrop and AirPlay for sharing files or streaming music and video.
Widespread adoption of wireless headsets might also encourage people to try streaming music using the Apple Watch, a first step toward getting them interested in future smartwatch apps and services, one industry expert suggested. Apple could distribute the new iPhones with a “good enough” Bluetooth headset included, she added, while selling more expensive headsets separately. Apple may provide earbuds with a Lightning plug, and possibly an adaptor for older headsets.