On Courage and Cowardice

This week Apple made the announcement for the new iPhone 7. It was mostly what critics and leaks expected it to be. Including the controversial exclusion of the headphone port. Its been a long time since I’ve watched an Apple keynote, and long still since I’ve been an iPhone user. Normally I would just take a cursory look at what Apple was changing and then move on, but this change has gathered a lot of attention in the wrong places and I feel the need to add my two cents.

Apple is correct, wireless headphones need to be the new standard.

The core point of the new iPhone is that wireless headphones are the new standard and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to jump through hoops to maintain their hard wired connections. Most iPhone users are looking at this from the bias of already owning wired headphones, presumably expensive ones (Beats). But if we think about this more objectively, wireless headphones finally solve a major problem with headphones that has been around since before Apple designed its first set of ear buds. Wireless headphones have no cord to get tangled, nothing to yank the headphone from your ear or to disconnect when jostled. I use Bluetooth headphones, much more modest ones than the AirPods (AirBuds), and its so nice not having a wire connecting my head with my hip.

Apple is so late to the party even the janitors have left.

As always Apples ‘new’ technology is too late. Apple only enters a market when they decide that its mature enough for them to ‘innovate’ it by reselling what everyone’s already been buying. Wireless headphones are not new. I got my first pair of over the ear Bluetooth headphones around 2006 and got a 3.5mm to Bluetooth adapter for my iPod Mini because Apple was behind the times even then. The Advanced Audio Distribution Profiles (A2DP) that Bluetooth uses to send audio has improved leaps and bounds over the poor quality that was standard in 2006. I mentioned that I still use Bluetooth headphones, they are miles better than what I originally had and they cost me about $10, cheaper than the Apple wired ear buds. Wireless headphones is not something new Apple is trying to push, many top headphone manufacturers already make headphones with built in Bluetooth. Apple is just more forcefully pushing people with wired headphones to move to new (expensive) wireless headphones.

This was the worst way Apple could have made this change.

This push is the worst way Apple could have pushed this change for Apple’s customers. In the technology service industry pushing a new product that fundamentally breaks your customer interaction model is a horrible thing to do, and this is the reason legacy APIs are often supported forever. Apple is putting all its cards on the table, you lose the headphone jack or you don’t get an new iPhone, because they know few will call that bluff. People will still buy these new iPhones by the million as they are released, so Apple don’t care what’s best for their customers. Releasing the AirBuds with a normal iPhone upgrade would have been enough to get most of Apple user base to switch to wireless headphones. Market the AirBuds as the new premium status symbol from Apple and people will line up around the corner to preorder. Removing the headphone jack is just forcing the already willing hand.

This is the most profitable way to make this change.

As mentioned previously, this is not the best way for the customers to migrate over to wireless headphones, it is the profitable for Apple. Behind the cover of being ‘courageous’ and ripping the band-aid all at once, Apple has created a new AirBud and wireless headphone market, and a market for dongles and wired adapters. Today Belkin announced that they will be making a $40 dongle to enable an iPhone 7 to charge and play music through the lightning port. Apple is licencing its lightning port to Belkin for $4-$12 of that dongle. Its basic economics, create scarcity be removing the headphone jack, then create supply by providing dongles. But because its an artificial scarcity its only benefiting Apple. In a few years they will again be courageous and change the lightning port to USB C or some other standard and they will applaud themselves for embracing better standards while they get to start a whole new dongle market.

I am excited for the technology.

With Apple making all these wrong moves around the release of the AirBuds, I think they could be a great piece of technology. Independent wireless ear pods are difficult because the grey matter between them is very good at blocking radio signals. Each AirPod has an accelerometer and a contact sensor. I would bet these are able to read heart rate as well, but that will be a later feature. These could be revolutionary headphones the same way ear buds moved us all away from clunky black on ear headphones. But at $160 these AirBuds will not become ubiquitous any time soon.

These are my thoughts on the matter. I stay, for now, an Android man.

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