Pods full of Air

Tech Life

I’m preparing my observations about yesterday’s Apple event, but I wanted to give the removal of the headphone port and the new AirPods their own separate post, to avoid writing too long an article.


Speaking of Apple’s innovation, in my previous article I wrote:

I’m not saying that Apple, post-Jobs, has ceased to innovate. What I’ll say, from my humble point of view, is that Apple’s innovation, too, feels different, more fragmented and ‘schizophrenic’. There are areas of brilliance, there are unquestionable feats of engineering and manufacturing […] but certain design decisions seem to reflect a lack of a plan, and seem motivated more by a sort of ‘Let’s try this thing’ approach.

When Apple unveiled the AirPods at yesterday’s event, I instantly saw them as yet another confirmation of the feeling I verbalise above. The AirPods pack so much technology and smart solutions inside, but I can’t believe the team of designers has overlooked a few important impracticalities that make the AirPods an awkward accessory at best. Or, if they have not overlooked those impracticalities, I wonder how the designers can be fine with them.

1. First, the obvious — what everyone said on Twitter the moment the AirPods were unveiled: that it’s going to be so easy to lose them. If your current wired EarPods don’t fit perfectly in your ears, forget about the AirPods. Here’s the thing with wired earphones, though: if you’re like me — with one earbud fitting perfectly in one ear, and the other earbud fitting not that perfectly (it moves and falls off after a while) — you can still use the EarPods when you’re out and about. When the less-fitting earbud falls off, it just hangs from the wire; you can easily put it back in your ear and readjust it a bit, so that it doesn’t fall off for another half hour or so.

Picture the same scenario, but without wires: the left earbud falls off and… oops. If you’re lucky, you swiftly pick it up from the ground. But what if you’re jogging in some park and one AirPod bounces off and get lost in the grass or falls somewhere you can’t see? What if you’re standing in a crowded place (bus, train, underground) and it falls out of reach or someone inadvertently steps on it? Or what if you’re walking in the street and it falls down in some grate near the pavement, or gets crushed by a car? (You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s say you run to cross a road to catch the green light before it turns to red, and one AirPod falls in the middle of the road before you get to the other side but you only realise that after you’ve crossed, and now the cars have the green light…)

But even if the AirPods fit in your ears perfectly and you find this informal test reassuring, are you really comfortable with going out with two small things in your ears that might fall off anyway for any number of reasons?

2. Another practical scenario: you’re listening to music, or talking with somebody and wearing the AirPods. A friend, or a stranger nearby taps your shoulder and asks you something. The typical gesture is to remove one earbud and, if you’re wearing wired earphones, you just let it hang from the wire. When you return to whatever or whoever you were listening to, you just put that earbud back in. With the AirPods, you remove one and… what, you keep it in your hand? You store it temporarily in a pocket? And if you have no pockets, in your purse or bag? You can do all that, of course. It’s just a bit less practical than simply having the earbud hang from its wire.

Mr Robot S2E6a

Mr Robot S2E6b

3. From a user interaction standpoint, I’m not sure that a double tap on the AirPods to activate Siri is such a good idea, unless they can register very light taps. To me, that’s just an invitation to make an earbud drop. (Also, if you’re comfortable talking to Siri via the AirPods while out and about, good for you. I don’t think I ever will.)

The future of audio is wireless

One of the best articles post-event I’ve read so far is Inside iPhone 7: Why Apple Killed The Headphone Jack by John Paczkowski. In it, you’ll find the technical explanation as to why the headphone port was left out of the iPhone 7:

A tentpole feature of the new iPhones are improved camera systems that are larger than the cameras in the devices that preceded them. The iPhone 7 now has the optical image stabilization feature previously reserved for its larger Plus siblings. And the iPhone 7 Plus has two complete camera systems side by side — one with a fixed wide-angle lens, the other with a 2x zoom telephoto lens. At the top of both devices is something called the “driver ledge” — a small printed circuit board that drives the iPhone’s display and its backlight. Historically, Apple placed it there to accommodate improvements in battery capacity, where it was out of the way. But according to Riccio, the driver ledge interfered with the iPhone 7 line’s new larger camera systems, so Apple moved the ledge lower in both devices. But there, it interfered with other components, particularly the audio jack.

So the company’s engineers tried removing the jack.

In doing so, they discovered a few things. First, it was easier to install the “Taptic Engine” that drives the iPhone 7’s new pressure-sensitive home button, which, like the trackpads on Apple’s latest MacBook, uses vibrating haptic sensations to simulate the feeling of a click — without actually clicking.

I think it would have been more honest to explain just that during the event — perhaps in more layman’s terms — instead of all that talk about ‘courage’ and (I’m paraphrasing) ‘someone had to do it sooner or later’.

In Paczkowski’s article, Apple’s executives all try to justify the decision of removing the headphone port, but I didn’t find their arguments particularly convincing.

The audio connector is more than 100 years old,” Joswiak says. “It had its last big innovation about 50 years ago. You know what that was? They made it smaller. It hasn’t been touched since then. It’s a dinosaur. It’s time to move on.”

Is it? The argument that something has to be replaced because it’s old may hold water in other contexts. In this one, I’m not so sure. And please, I’ve heard enough about how Apple boldly removed the floppy drive back in 1998. Floppy disks were already inadequate storage supports at the time. Truly better technologies were already developed. Removing the floppy drive was an act of mercy. But, as Paczkowski beautifully puts it:

The 3.5-millimeter audio jack, however, is neither inadequate nor in obvious need of replacement. Sure, it is certainly dusty. But it is widely used and unencumbered by patents. You don’t have to pay anyone to use it. The signal it transmits doesn’t need to be decoded. And because it is an analog and not a digital standard, it cannot be locked down with digital rights management (DRM). Like the AC power socket adorning the walls of our homes, the headphone jack is a dumb interface. In Apple parlance, “it just works.” Buy a pair of headphones — from an audiophile store or an airport vending machine — and plug them into a headphone jack and you’ll likely hear whatever it is you were planning on listening to. So why send it off for a dirt nap?

In the article Phil Schiller is quoted as saying: We are removing the audio jack because we have developed a better way to deliver audio. Is wireless a better way to deliver audio? It may be a more convenient way, because you’re not encumbered by the presence of audio cables or limited in movement by their length. But wired solutions, too, have their practicality. Look at the technology the AirPods have to contain to basically do what every wired pair of earphones and headphones already do: be connected to some other device and ‘just work’. It’s true, the AirPods’ pairing process is fast and ingenious, and involving iCloud for device syncing is, well, courageous. But with wired earphones you don’t have to worry about audio dropping or battery life. And wired earphones are more practical to manage and less likely to get dropped or lost than the AirPods.

We do understand that this might be a difficult transition for some people who love their wired headphones,” says Schiller. “But the transition is inevitable. You’ve got to do it at some point. Sooner or later the headphone jack is going away. There are just too many reasons aligned against it sticking around any longer. There’s a little bit of pain in every transition, but we can’t let that stop us from making it. If we did, we’d never make any progress at all. […]

Remember, we’ve been through this many times before,” says Schiller. “We got rid of parallel ports, the serial bus, floppy drives, physical keyboards on phones — do you miss the physical keyboards on your phone? … At some point — some point soon, I think — we’re all going to look back at the furor over the headphone jack and wonder what the big deal was.”

I’d really like to read a list of those “too many reasons aligned against it sticking around any longer”, but the fact is that this transition Schiller talks about isn’t yet necessary. Instead of solving an existing problem, Apple has created a problem to then solve it their way and feed us the narrative of the courageous pioneer. All the examples of past transitions Schiller makes are valid because all those were technologies that were made obsolete by the appearance of newer, more advanced, better solutions. Deciding to just kill the headphone jack off because “it’s old” and because “sooner or later it’s going away anyway” sounds arbitrary and a little too arrogant to me. Where is the better solution here? Where is the incredibly advanced solution that replaces the headphone port and jack in all their current uses and truly represents a compelling progress? Not Bluetooth technology and certainly not those AirPods.

The Author

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