Never has the absence of a feature on a new tech product caused such a storm.
The headphone jack — originally introduced into radio equipment in the 1960s and for telephone operators as far back as 1878 — has been left off Apple’s iPhone 7. Thiscreated a worldwide uproar after last week’s launch that seems oddly disproportionate to the significance of how one plugs in one’s headphones.
The 3.5mm jack made its first commercial appearance with the Sony EFM-117J radio in 1964. It is an arcane, albeit useful, piece of technology that is ripe for disruption.
Apple is not the first cellphone manufacturer to ditch the headphone jack (ostensibly because it takes up so much space inside the device).
Motorola, now owned by Chinese computer maker Lenovo, and LeEco, another Chinese phone manufacturer, have already done that.
Part of the reason is that the new USB port, known as Type-C, and Apple’s Lightning adapter — both of which are reversible, so it doesn’t matter which way you plug them in — do much more than just charge gadgets. They can be used to transfer data and can even power displays.
There is a Lightning-to-3.5mm jack adapter included in the iPhone 7 box, but this means you can’t charge the phone while using it. And Apple has finally made its own branded Bluetooth headphones, called AirPods (US$160/R2,235), which look great.
I switched to Bluetooth headphones years ago (Jabra Sport Pulse for everyday use and Sennheiser’s noise-cancelling MM550 for travelling), and can vouch for the vast improvement of having no wires.
Bluetooth speakers have flown off the shelves, reportedly selling 100m units already, which puts this change-resistant storm-in-a-headphone-jack into context.
But, as has been angrily pointed out on social media — seemingly without irony, given the $650 (R9 000) starting price of the smallest-capacity iPhone 7 — many people can’t afford Bluetooth headphones.
The last time there was such an uproar over Apple’s changing technology was when it retired the iPod/iPhone connecte r (known as the 30-pin plug) and introduced the slimmer, reversible Lightning in 2012.
That is no reason the company shouldn’t radically explore new technologies. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously told his biographer: "If you don’t cannibalise yourself, someone else will."
Apple has previously taken the lead in ditching other seemingly impossible-to-live-without tech, such as 2.5-inch stiffy drives, the CD-Rom drive, the ancient parallel and serial ports, the redundant Ethernet port and even the buttons on laptop trackpads.
Apple is a lot braver at this kind of disruption than most other manufacturers. In the 1990s it adopted FireWire, a data-transfer cable that was faster and more sophisticated than USB 1.0. It later dropped this for an Intel-developed technology called Thunderbolt that it called mini DisplayPort. Neither had mass-market appeal, and they were replaced with the much faster USB 3.0.
All these transfer technologies have been usurped by USB Type-C, which handles power, display signals for monitors and data (at 10GB/second, twice that of USB 3). It first appeared on last year’s MacBooks and is now on Google Nexus phones and Pixel tablets.
Part of the public gnashing of teeth appears to focus on how easily Lightning cables can be broken or damaged — though I’ve never experienced this.
The iPhone 7 is a departure from Apple’s tradition of making big style updates (a new casing and shape) one year and updating it the next with an S model that includes internal upgrades. The industry calls it "tick-tock".
But, in anticipation of next year’s 10th anniversary of the iPhone, it’s widely believed that Apple is hanging on to the major changes for the decade model.
Instead, it has introduced a plethora of minor upgrades that it hopes will be enough to lure new buyers. Both models have better cameras (with larger ƒ/1.8 apertures for better low-light images), while the larger 7 Plus has two 12MP cameras (a wide-angle and a telephoto) that together give superior images and two-to-10 times digital zoom.
The space taken up by that old-school headphone jack has been given over to a second speaker, promising better audio quality.
The single home button now uses the same tech found in MacBook trackpads, giving a tactile feeling and feedback when you push it. The screen resolution has been boosted to 750p for the 7 and 1 080p for the 7 Plus, and the new A10 Fusion processor is better, faster, and has more cores.
Arguably the most welcome upgrade is that the phone is now dust and water resistant — much like the products of other major smartphone makers — which means you can drop it in 1m of water for up to half an hour.
Years ago, tired of this mania that grips new iPhone and smartphone launches, I facetiously postulated Shapshak’s First Law of Smartphone Upgrades: it’s always thinner, always faster, always has a bigger camera. After the phablet fad struck, I updated it with Shapshak’s Second Law, which added "bigger screen".
I may be forced to formulate Shapshak’s Third Law of Smartphone Upgrades: ditches old connector and inspires social media hatred for the blink of an eye, before the next scandal strikes ...