Apple’s ‘Courageous’ Leap

The company has been praised for killing floppy disks and CDs. Will its decision to remove the headphone jack inevitably be seen the same way?

Apple's chief of marketing, Phil Schiller, announces the iPhone 7.
Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Apple’s product-launch events are usually eagerly anticipated, but ahead of the latest round this Wednesday, Apple fans braced for a deeply unpopular announcement: the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. When Phil Schiller, the company’s senior vice president for marketing, brought it up on stage, he framed the decision as a necessary—if difficult—end to an outdated technology.

Apple has a way of talking about its products as inevitabilities, as beacons of progress that shape the entire field of consumer electronics. Sure, it may introduce products and features that its competitors have been selling for years—the iPhone 7 will be water-resistant, joining a host of 3-year-old Samsung smartphones—but Apple executives like positioning their products as the first ones that matter. (Often, as with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, Apple products do become the gold standard, even if they arrive late.)

And when it comes to killing off old technologies, no one does it better than Apple. Before the headphone jack met its fate on Wednesday, the last technology to get the chop was one of Apple’s own: the 30-pin dock connector. That’s the wide, skinny plug that iPhones and iPad once used for charging—it was replaced in 2012 by the much thinner, reversible Lightning connector, which will soon be the only option for audio output.

That switch was met with a collective groan by consumers who had to replace all their old chargers and accessories—but, eventually, it was forgotten. The prevailing narrative is that Apple’s changes, while painful, are for the best. This 2012 article from Gizmodo, for example, uses the demise of the dock connector—then still a rumor—to justify Apple’s habit of canning old technologies, like the floppy drive and the CD drive:

As much as it seems like some greedy ploy by Apple to screw you over and force you into buying another set of expensive new toys, the truth is that any innovative, forward-looking company has to make these difficult breaks with the status quo.

This is technology.

That’s certainly how Apple would like you to conceive of its moves, too. Nearly an hour and a half into Apple’s product announcement on Wednesday, Schiller finally addressed the 3.5 millimeter-sized elephant in the room: the missing headphone jack. As peace offerings, he promised that every new iPhone would ship with a pair of headphones that can plug into the Lightning port, and an adapter so that your “analog, old” devices can still plug into the seven-hundred dollar piece of hardware you bought. (Schiller used the word “analog” as much as possible to describe a technology that, until that very moment, was pretty much the only game in town for audio connections.)

Then, it got real:

Some people have asked why would we remove the analog headphone jack in the iPhone. I mean, it’s been with us a really long time. I’m sure you know that the source of this mini-phono jack is over a hundred years old, used to help quickly exchange in switchboards. Well, the reason to move on … really comes down to one word: courage. Courage to move on, do something new, that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage.

Apple’s keynotes are always a little over-the-top, but Schiller’s spiel was particularly sappy.To be fair, it does take a measure of confidence to drop yet another universal standard—a decision that The Verge’s Nilay Patel called “user-hostile and stupid” in a widely-shared piece earlier this year. And, in Apple’s defense, the hostility in the lead-up to the headphone announcement mirrored the public outrage that erupted when earlier Macs shipped without floppy disk or CD drives.

But it won’t be clear for another several years whether Apple’s bold move is the kick the electronics industry needed to dump an “old, analog” standard—or whether it’ll drag headphones into the all-consuming iOS-Android war, or open them up to the horrors of overzealous digital-rights management.

Humans like threading narratives through history to try to understand it. Companies like doing it, too, when it makes them look good. Apple probably doesn’t mind a story that paints it as a leader in its field, the one that decides which technologies can stay and which must go. Parts of that story—or even all of it—could be true. But it’s hard to imagine what would’ve happened if Apple didn’t make the product choices it did, when it did.

That said, it’s even harder to imagine a world where laptops still feature floppy-disk drives. Technology’s drumbeat hasn’t flagged; perhaps the days were numbered for an analog audio port that hadn’t changed for decades. (“The transition is inevitable,” Schiller told Buzzfeed’s John Paczkowski. “You’ve got to do it at some point. Sooner or later the headphone jack is going away.”)

Through the rearview, it’s likely Apple’s latest leap of faith, like the others it’s successfully made, will seem prescient—but that will be, in part, because of how well the company manages its image.