So the new iPhone is out, and as predicted, it does away with the standard, unencumbered, unrestricted-by-patent 3.5mm audio connector. You can read about the release on BuzzFeed’s pretty decent writeup if you like. And this matters, even if you have an older phone, or an Android phone, because Apple is the kind of 10,000-pound-gorilla that can shape markets in this area. Even if you’re not an Apple user, this throws expectations around for the future.
There is an adaptor – really, a mini-interface-card disguised as a cable adaptor – to let you use 3.5mm devices with the lightning port. It has to contain a D/A converter and a small amplifier. One will be included with the new phones, and it costs $9 and doesn’t make your cable weird – it’s not some big block like the previous 30-pin to Lighting interface, and it’s not $30.
I have concerns about how good a job a $9-retail D/A converter and amp unit is doing to do at rendering quality audio. It will be very tempting to make it deliver “meh” quality output, and push people to new gear. That’s short-sighted, but let’s not pretend that stops anyone.
Countering that concern is the fact that at least at one point, Apple required a specific D/A converter for the Lightning audio standard: this one. I have no idea whether that’s still a requirement. But if it is, I’m willing to assume a baseline of competence for it – anything else would’ve been suicidal for the spec right out the gate.
I’ve heard a lot of people talking about whether the new interface is built for digital rights management (DRM) as the long goal. I genuinely don’t think so, because it doesn’t really add much capability they don’t already have. Sooner or later, you have to go to analogue, and unless they want to remove the capability to connect to high-end audio equipment – and Bluetooth does not cut it for audiophiles, or necessarily even mid-philes – there has to be a way to hook up to standard, not-Apple gear.
You can’t get around that. Lest people forget, an Apple-provided solution for this already exists in the form of the dock – shown on the iPhone 7 front page, too. It’s not going away. And the reason it won’t go away is that while audiophiles are not a big market, they are exactly the kind of lifestyle market Apple wants and needs in order to support its brand, and more importantly, its markup. That’s not tech; that’s image management. Even without Steve, Apple knows its image.
Similarly, they can’t cut off concert musicians and DJs from plain old analogue output. There are too many audio pros out there using phones now, and while that market isn’t actually large, it’s a market Apple still invokes in image, and it’s too perceived as cool for Apple to throw overboard without throwing another serious wrench into its branding.
And frankly, with the recording industry betting what’s left of the farm on streaming, they don’t really don’t seem to care much about DRM on plain audio anymore. The RIAA destroyed the value of owning music, so from their point of view, who cares? Music is the billboard, not the product. I just really can’t see this as “HDMI for audio.”
So from a consumer standpoint, mostly I see “Apple has made your headphone cable annoying.” Even that’s assuming you’ve got your own headset and aren’t using the one Apple included, which most people do and will continue to do.
Now, this does get more complicated for musicians and DJs. Even if the included little cable adaptor is good – and let’s say it is straight up great – then you can’t trivially run the new devices on power and interface directly to performance gear anymore. That’s a headache. “Oh shit, I forgot to charge my phone” becomes a critical failure. Best case is you get a new device for that – and the dock is not suitable, you need something you can’t knock over or drop – which means one more damn thing to buy and carry around and/or lose.
Let’s also say you’re using some sort of audio software on the phone, and it doesn’t have a way to save files that you can transfer to other devices. (Even the software I have which does this doesn’t do it easily or well, it’s kind of a pain in the ass and I don’t do it. I use the headphone jack.) And a lot of software – like 8-bit emulator sequencers, and like Animoog, which I have actually used on multiple released tracks – just doesn’t do it. So that just got more annoying on newer hardware too. Another dock or another cable or another whatever. It’s one more step.
But, interestingly, not on the iPad. So far, I’ve heard no rumours that the iPad will drop the 3.5mm connector. And the iPad – particularly the iPad Pro – has very un-phonelike things like a keyboard case and special connector, and art stylus/pencil, and so on.
So what I’m thinking – particularly with the Pro – is that Apple is seeing a differentiation opportunity between “phone” and “pad,” and that they’re pushing “iPhone” to “purely consumption device,” paralleling their attempt to push “iPad” towards “creation device.” That’s not the actual usage out there – lots of people use the iPhone to make things – but it’s coherent market segmentation, and marketroids love their market segmentation.
Also, the iPad isn’t nearly as space-constrained as the iPhone. It’s just not comparable. On the iPhone, replacing that jack space with bigger battery and camera means vastly improved camera and about an hour extra battery life. On the iPad, it’s not a big enough percentage of space to care.
If the next generation of iPad keeps the 3.5mm analogue headphone jack – while adding support for the new Apple wireless headphone specs, of course – I’ll take that to be pretty solid supporting evidence. We’ll see.