Apple Inc.’s big reveal of the iPhone 7 yesterday was exactly what a lot of pundits feared. Instead of releasing a true innovative successor to the iPhone 7, we got something more like the iPhone 6S-S. Certainly there are a few fantastic standouts among the new features such as water resistance,the dual camera with optical zoom and the improved retina display, but the big story of the event was the long-rumored removal of the headphone jack. Apple has elected instead to standardize on using the Lightning connector for all future wired accessories, while doubling down on wireless and announcing a new wireless headphone option, the $159 AirPods as the future.
Before the Apple loyalists among you start to get out your torches and pitchforks, I’d like to state for the record that I am not opposed to moving towards wireless headphones – in fact I think it’s a really good idea, but audio quality and battery life both have to be respected in order to make this change. I (and many other tech journalists it seems) was hoping that Apple would innovate and introduce a new bit-perfect wireless technology for headphones with the iPhone 7, perhaps finally putting a bullet in the lossy audio issues we have all experienced with Bluetooth. Instead, Apple has made what amounts to a savvy business decision and have cloaked it in marketing to play it off.
Apple’s announcement of their proprietary W1 wireless chip was perhaps the ultimate gut punch for those of us hoping for more. Instead of the lossless solution we hoped for, the W1 appears to be little more than a Bluetooth Low Energy chip with a couple of tweaks for quick pairing, Siri integration and sensor readings. More insidiously, since Apple has taken a standard technology and made it proprietary, they can now charge a license fee to use it. This is not evil of Apple, it’s just a very savvy business decision that I believe is targeted at their profit margins more than the audio experience.
We all know consumers hate inconvenience, and dongles are very inconvenient. With the elimination of the 3.5mm headphone jack and the move to a dongle, Apple has just encouraged third party hardware manufacturers from the more obvious headphone companies to the less obvious DSLR trigger makers to pay a license fee of $4 for every device they manufacture so they can use lightning connectivity. Just imagine how much more money Apple will haul in when every almost every headphone sold to an iPhone user from now on makes them money. I have no doubt that a similar licensing fee will soon be required to utilize Apple’s W1 wireless chip and quick pairing technology.
Charging a license fee for a convenient feature is not wrong by any definition, and Apple deserves kudos for their quick pairing tech, provided they are willing to share it with other manufacturers. If they aren’t – then it’s nothing more than a brilliant stroke of protectionism that will enable them to sell more of those incredibly overpriced AirPods. I am positive that if Steve Jobs had been alive, this move would either have been avoided entirely, or he would have insisted on far better battery life and audio quality for the AirPods – the two real letdowns of this announcement. Cook and his team have proven again and again that they are operational business people and not visionaries. Many of us hope that they can make a strategic shift to leading from the front by innovating instead of making decisions that are clearly just protecting their revenue stream.
Is this good for consumers? Only time will tell. For now I’ll continue to hope that the next iPhone does something to move the needle for wireless audio.