The new iPhone was unveiled today.
The big news is that it does not have a headphone jack. You’ll need to use wireless headphones, which Apple is calling “AirPods” or else you can use wired headphones using their lightning cable and an adapter. You cannot, however, use regular headphones and there is no longer a standard aux cable.
This is causing a great deal of sturm und drang, with people alternatively freaking out on social media about losing their AirPods or racing to top each other in jokes at Apple’s expense.
Of course, there are also a lot of people defending this move by Apple as visionary, because there are some people who will say anything Apple does is visionary. Apple marketing exec Phill Schiller went so far as to say that the move “comes down to one word – courage.” Which, um, sure. The takeaway here, I think, is that both complainers and backers of every technological change overstate their cases, often in ridiculous ways.
I think it ultimately comes down to this: if you think of an iPhone as a stepping stone across the Great River of Technological Advancement one must ford on The Path to Paradise or something, wireless is necessary and cool and – dare I say it?! – courageous. If you think of an iPhone as a consumer product that you use as a tool to get you through your day, much like a vacuum cleaner or your car, not having a headphone jack is a pain in the ass. It’s that simple.
You have to accept some balance in that whole calculus, of course. The customer isn’t always right. Indeed, it’s often the case that end users have to be prodded, often sharply, into trying new things that will, in fact, make their lives easier one day. But it’s also the case that companies which lose sight of the fact that, hey, people use their products for a reason, eventually run into trouble when he products stop being useful and practical. This is especially true of companies who are making money hand over fist, face little competition and forget how demand curves work. Ask a GM executive from the 1960s and 1970s about that.
I’m certainly no technology expert, but I think the move into wireless headphones mostly serves Apple’s interests, not the interest of its customers. Maybe Apple has learned that its customers will go along with anything even if they aren’t being well-served. Maybe it has managed to convince enough of them that they are really buying that stepping stone across the Great River of Technological Advancement and not a simple consumer product. As an Apple product user myself, I am well aware that there are some cultlike tendencies among our kind that have basically given Apple a license to print money in ways few if any companies ever have had.
But I think it’s a mistake to assume that Apple is infallible when it comes to this kind of stuff. It may have more money than God and it may have assumed a place in our culture that makes it seem like something more than a company selling gadgets to customers, but it’s still just a company selling gadgets to customers. It strikes me that, perhaps, it should think a bit harder about what customers want and ease up a bit on what it thinks customers will adapt to. At some point it’s going to lose a bet on that score.