So this was inevitable: the Samsung Galaxy S8 rumor mill is in full swing, and one of the reports suggests that Samsung will be removing the headphone jack from the next generation of its flagship phone, just as Apple did with the iPhone 7. (The rumors also suggest the company will go with an “all-screen” bezel-less design that hides the home button, which sounds neat and also almost exactly like the rumors about the next iPhone design. Samsung, you know?)
Anyway, the conventional wisdom is that since Apple already took the hit and removed the headphone jack, Samsung is free to do the same without suffering a similar public relations firestorm. Which is good, because the fires of the Note 7 are still burning. Here’s John Gruber:
Samsung won’t face anywhere near the amount of criticism Apple did, because Apple went first and took most of the arrows. Which, yes, took courage.
And there’s now sales data out there showing that the iPhone 7 is selling just fine, and that the lack of a headphone jack isn’t an issue for prospective buyers. So: issue resolved, right? Apple had the courage to make the move, Samsung follows, and we’re into the bold new world of digital audio.
I don’t think so — and I don’t think it’s that simple.
When I first wrote that removing the headphone jack was user-hostile and stupid, I listed several reasons: digital audio is more restrictive, wireless solutions are all pretty meh, dongles are irritating, changing established standards impacts accessibility, and fragmenting audio standards across platforms is ridiculous.
It’s been a few months of living with the iPhone 7, and every one of those things is still true. And when Samsung removes the headphone jack, it’ll be even worse for its users, because the Android / Samsung accessory ecosystem isn’t nearly as strong as the iPhone accessory ecosystem.
Basically: not having a headphone jack might not be enough to deter sales of a phone, but it’s still really annoying and requires users to spend additional money to reclaim very basic functionality from their devices. And most of that money flows back to the device vendor, effectively increasing the price of the phone. We’ve taken something simple and universal, and turned it into something complex and proprietary, for no obvious benefits. It’s a bad trade-off. It’s… user-hostile and stupid. There’s just no getting around it.
(On the flip side, the industry-wide move to USB-C high-speed interconnects on laptops is a huge push toward a simple, universal standard. It’s annoying now, but the benefits over time are obvious.)
Here’s my list of issues from June, slightly updated:
Digital audio means DRM audio and wireless headphones and speakers are fine, not great:
Apple has been way out front saying that DRM concerns are a “conspiracy theory,” but problems with DRM aren’t about good or bad intentions. Instead, they’re about requiring permission for unexpected uses, which limits your freedom around content you have rights to use and makes innovation harder unless someone pays a tax.
And the contours of that tax are now clear. If you want to plug standard audio devices into a phone without a headphone jack, you need to buy an adapter. If you want to get the best experience with a set of wired headphones, you need to buy new Lightning or USB-C headphones, which then won’t work with the vast majority of other devices. If you want a wireless experience, you have to use Bluetooth, which sucks in almost infinite ways. If you want the best Apple wireless experience, you have to buy Apple or Beats headphones with a W1 chip, which means you have exactly zero choices that aren’t made by Apple.
It’s simpler in a table, so here are some tables:
Of the four ways to connect an audio device to an iPhone, Apple collects a tax on three of them. For USB-C, you’ll end up paying a more diffuse usability tax and gain very little tangible benefit in return: Samsung’s phones were already thin (maybe too thin) and waterproof.
And if the goal is to push everyone to wireless audio in general, well, maybe that dream isn’t worth it until Bluetooth is actually better. Bluetooth 5 was just finalized yesterday, so it’s not shipping in anything, let alone phones, for months to come. Apple has delayed AirPods indefinitely, and other wireless headphones aren’t quite there yet either. You can be bold about pushing people into the future, but taking away something that works reliably in favor of a bunch of broken things isn’t bold at all. It’s just dumb.
Dongles are stupid, especially when they require other dongles: This photo of Recode editor Dan Frommer living his best #donglelife trying to charge his iPhone 7 from his MacBook while listening to a call is so silly it ended up on Reddit and got written up at BGR.
It’s just as ridiculous with a USB-C-only Android phone. And Android phones typically get worse battery life at similar battery sizes, so the charge / listen problem in particular will be exacerbated.
Ditching a deeply established standard will disproportionately impact accessibility and Making Android and iPhone headphones incompatible is arrogant and stupid: These two also go hand in hand: what kinds of audio devices should schools buy if they support iOS and Android devices? How many dongles of each kind should they stock? If you make devices for the hard of hearing, do you increase your development costs to make and support both USB-C and Lightning devices? Who do you leave behind?
All I’m saying is that the costs of removing the headphone jack are extremely clear. It’s clear who’s paying these costs (us), and it’s clear who’s collecting the payment (them). It’s not at all clear what we’re getting in return.
I laid out all these problems before Apple announced the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, and I don’t think the company has provided good enough answers for any of them. It certainly hasn’t provided a crystal clear statement of the value delivered in exchange for the headphone jack going away. I suspect Samsung’s lack of answers will be just as deafening.
It’s a good time to start a dongle company, though.