In May 2014, Apple announced that it had bought Beats headphones for a staggering sum of US$3.2 billion. The following month the news leaked out that Apple had submitted the Lightning port specification to it’s “Mfi” (made for) licensing program along with rumors that it would subsequently discontinue the 3.5mm jack on its products in favor of the Lightning port.
This news was met with mixed reactions, with some critics questioning the need for an updated jack interface and concerned that their audio accessories would soon become incompatible with Apple products and eventually obsolete. Those weary of Apple’s intentions could point out past cases where Apple’s insistence on idiosyncratic design format choices did not serve consumers’ best interests.
For example, in the late 1990s, Steve Jobs insisted on abandoning the standard CD tray loader drive on the iMac in favor of a slot design, which resembled CD players on luxury cars. Soon afterwards Panasonic introduced CD drives that could burn and rip CDs, but they could only be installed in computers with standard CD tray loader drives. As a result of Apple’s straying from the standard CD drive format, iMac users missed out on what soon became one of the most sought after features in personal computers. A similar example of this design hubris was when buyers discovered that their iPhone 4 would drop calls because of the brushed aluminum edge, which interfered with antennae reception.
A recent antitrust lawsuit against Apple claims that people who bought iPods between September 12, 2006 and March 31, 2009 were subjected to unfair practices because of software updates which prevented them from listening to music obtained from sources other than the iTunes stores. Incidents such as this have fuelled the perception that Apple has gone from being the noble underdog competitor in the Microsoft-dominated PC world to a monopolistic company, which displays many of the same negative traits characteristic of Microsoft in the past. It is against this backdrop that many question Apple’s adoption of the Lightning port.
However, others point out that, for a variety of reasons, there is a genuine need for a new audio jack interface. First of all, the current standard is far older than for most other components for contemporary computer or audio devices. The 3.5mm jack actually dates back to the late 19th century, when it was originally introduced for use on telephone switchboards. Furthermore, the 3.5mm device is designed to provide analog audio sound, which makes little sense at a time when the music provided on mobile devices is in digital formats. In addition, the 3.5mm jack is less conducive to providing listeners with high-quality lossless audio output than the Lightning port, which is capable of providing 48 kHz digital output.
Extra input/output holes are also undesirable on mobile devices and computers because they contribute to wear and tear and shorten product life spans. Any extra openings for extra power sockets, micro-USB, or audio jacks enable both dust and moisture to build up inside devices and negatively affect their performance. In addition, in order to provide smaller, lighter phones, and more power-efficient phones, it makes sense for designers to eliminate any but the most necessary of plug-in sockets. With the extra space that is freed up by eliminating a jack, designers are free to dedicate more space to other design considerations, such as longer-lasting batteries.
Unlike the Lightning port or the micro-USB, the standard 3.5mm jack is limited by only being able to both transfer audio data from a device to headphones or microphones. From a design standpoint, it makes far more sense to equip computers and devices with a jack format that is capable of transferring audio, data, and electrical power. Similar to the micro-USB, which enables users to simultaneously transfer data between their computers and their mobile devices while also charging the battery on their mobile devices, the Lightning port fulfills these functions while also allowing users to listen to audio. This opens the door to wide variety of options for controls and interfaces that are capable of providing listeners with innovative display options and audio controls. In addition, using the same wire and jack, consumers can listen to high-quality audio content with noise cancellation headphones that are powered using their mobile device batteries.
While the micro-USB is a big step up from the standard 3.5mm jack, it has some limitations that prevent it from attaining the same functionality offered by Apple’s lightning port. For instance, due to the small size of micro-USB pins, the maximum charging power is too small for many devices, and this leads to slow charging times at a time of ever-increasing power demands. In addition, micro-USB jacks are fragile and frequently need to be replaced. Consequently micro-USB wires are unsuitable for transferring audio signals for consumers who are used to listening to music while they are doing activities that involve a lot of movement.
While critics may have a point that Apple’s adoption of the Lightning port is heavy-handed and forces consumers of iPhones to become further dependent on the Apple ecosystem, there is a genuine need to consider alternatives to the standard 3.5mm audio jack. Therefore, developing the next standard multifunctional audio jack is both a challenge and an opportunity for current mobile device manufacturers.
Although opinions about Apple’s Lightning Port will naturally be polarized, it should be acknowledged that Apple’s move is genuinely motivated by the need to provide a solution to the lack of an adequate standard for current audio needs. Whether Apple or another party wins the race to develop the new standard, the demand is there, and in the spirit of healthy competition, may the best innovator win.