For months, Apple watchers have been puzzling over how the company would sell consumers on the idea that scrapping the iPhone’s headphone jack was a benefit, not a nuisance. Many pundits predicted a backlash against removing a technology that, however old, remained in faithful daily service to hundreds of millions of people.
Few, however, predicted quite the kind of negative reaction that Apple provoked during Wednesday’s iPhone 7 launch event, with critics taking to Twitter en masse.
To prepare its pitch, Apple had plenty of experience to draw on with when making this type of shift.
In 2008, when Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of a brown paper envelope, it lacked the CD drive that was standard on other PCs, allowing the new notebook to be much thinner than its competitors. Jobs predicted, accurately, that soon software and media would be delivered over the internet, rather than on discs.
“We don’t think most users are going to miss the optical drive,” he said. “The MacBook Air was built to be a wireless machine.”
The iPhone, just a year old at that point, was also built to be wireless. But the 3.5mm wired headphone socket has endured thanks to its simplicity, reliability and universal compatibility.
When Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, took tothe stage in San Francisco on Wednesday, he portrayed the port as a hangover from the 19th century that was standing in the way of 21st century progress.
“Our smartphones are packed with technologies and we all want more,” which meant removing some components to make way for bigger batteries and faster processors, he said.
“The reason to move on comes down to one word: courage — the courage to move on, do something new that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage.”
If Mr Schiller was trying to head off a backlash, his speech may have backfired. Faced with what many decried as another example of Apple hubris, social networks lit up in a mix of bewilderment, outrage and parody.
“Removing a headphone jack doesn’t take courage. But charging $159 for AirPods does,” tweeted Dave Pell, an investor and iOS app developer, referring to the pricey new wireless headphones that Apple launched alongside the iPhone 7.
Mike Monteiro, creative director at San Francisco studio Mule Design, posted advert-like images of historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Anne Frank with AirPods Photoshopped into their ears, each bearing the caption “Courage”.
Behind the ridicule was the feeling that even if its headphones really do sound better than others’, Apple’s motivations were primarily commercial.
“These moves represent Apple’s desire to bolster declining mobile device revenues by capturing as much of its device owners’ expenditures in the burgeoning growing audio accessories market as possible,” says Paul Erickson, analyst at IHS Technology, a research group. “It should be noted that wireless models are the highest revenue-generating products within the headphone market.”
Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight, predicts the move to wireless audio ultimately will be seen as a “masterstroke”, thanks to the benefits to both users and Apple’s own accessories sales.
Most customers’ immediate concerns will be salved by the inclusion of new earbuds that work with the iPhone’s remaining Lightning port, as well as an adaptor for traditional headphones, he says.