Sep 15th, 2016

There was a time when it was worth mentioning that a phone had a 3.5mm headphone jack. The first smartphones required cumbersome adapters or proprietary headphones. It was a mess, which is why it was a big deal when smartphones finally included the 3.5mm jack. Thanks to Apple, we are about to go back down that dark road of dongles and proprietary ports. The 3.5mm jack has been around for over 50 years, but it was killed too soon.

The 3.5mm jack was first popularized in the 1960s by Sony. It didn’t really take off until the Sony Walkman became a smash hit in the 80s. It has been the standard audio port ever since. Millions of accessories and devices use and rely on the 3.5mm headphone jack. One could make the argument that it’s more ubiquitous than the USB port. So why are phone manufacturers itching to remove it?

Technology evolves over time. The first Android phones had mini-USB charging ports. Eventually, it was replaced with micro-USB, which some devices still use. Right now, we are in the middle of switching to USB Type-C. Years from now, we will switch to something better again. Audio ports haven’t changed nearly as much. 3.5mm has been the norm for nearly 30 years. Companies like Apple say it’s long overdue for an update. They aren’t wrong.

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Smartphones are due for a better audio standard. In fact, a new one is already available. Remember USB Type-C that was mentioned above? It can do audio too. The Moto Z Droid removed the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of USB Type-C. Bluetooth is also an option for replacing the headphone jack. 2016 has been a great year for wireless headphones, and it started well before anyone removed the headphone jack from a phone. It’s clear there are some better options out there for getting music from your phone to your ears. The execution of these new standards is what has left consumers up in arms.

Removing the headphone jack is not the way to adopt a new standard. It creates more problems than it solves. People argue that they replaced the headphone jack with Lightning and USB Type-C. That’s true on a technical level, but in practice it creates problems. Those ports already served a purpose alongside the headphone jack. Now you need an adapter to use both of the port’s purposes at the same time.

Let’s use the USB Type-C transition as an example. Many of us have built up a collection of micro-USB cables and accessories. Now, they are all obsolete. The difference between ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack and ditching micro-USB is that the device still works the same. You can still charge your phone exactly like before. Only now the experience is improved with faster charging and reversible connectors. Removing the headphone jack forces users to use the device in a drastically different way. Not to mention it doesn’t improve the experience.

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Apple gave a couple of reasons for ditching the headphone jack. One of those reasons was to accelerate the development of wireless headphones. As mentioned above, wireless headphones have been one of the biggest tech trends of 2016. They’ve gotten a lot better over the course of just one year. All of this development happened alongside the 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple would lead you to believe that the headphone jack was holding wireless headphones back. There’s simply nothing to back that up. Wireless headphones were already on track to replace the 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple and other manufacturers are trying to put their name on a trend that was already in motion.

Therein lies the biggest problem with removing the dedicated headphone jack in 2016: we’re not ready yet. The replacements are simply not good enough at this time. Lightning and USB Type-C headphones don’t sound dramatically better than 3.5mm. Wireless headphones have short battery life and poor audio quality. Everyone isn’t going to rush to drop $100+ on a pair of wireless headphones. So what will happen in the meantime? The market gets fractured. iPhones have their own special headphones now and there have already been rumors of Samsung creating their own standard. A future with headphones that only work with specific devices is not a future I want to live in.

A lot of people are against the removal of the headphone jack because they don’t like change. I’m not in that boat. I love change and welcome it most of the time. You have to be able to look at each change critically because all change is not automatically a good thing. Living in a truly wireless future is going to be great, but it’s going to take some time to get there. The 3.5mm headphones jack was a way to bridge the gap. Forcing the transition to happen before we’re ready is bad for consumers.

The 3.5mm headphone jack was on life support, but it didn’t need to be killed just yet. R.I.P.

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