Pretty soon, you may be plugging new headphones into the iPhone's Lightning port. Apple is reportedly expanding its Made for iPhone program with new terms that allow manufacturers to make headphones that link with iOS devices via the small connector— first introduced with the iPhone 5 in 2012. 9to5Mac claims that Apple will add support for Lightning headphones in an upcoming iOS firmware update. The company has a history of doing away with dated components (i.e. the 30-pin dock connector), but eliminating the headphone jack would be a drastic step even for Cupertino. It'd be another way for Apple to achieve consumer lock-in, but aside from that, it's hard to come up with obvious or practical benefits to such a change.
The headphone jack is still around because it works
9to5Mac suggests that the new specifications could allow your iPhone to power accessories that ordinarily require a built-in battery, like noise-cancelling headphones or even small, portable speakers. But this would cut into your phone or iPad's longevity, so why bother? Barring some sort of passthrough technique (or iPhones gaining wireless charging), it'd be an odd path for Apple or third-party OEMs to pursue. There's also the promise of a superior audio experience; Lightning headphones would support lossless audio at up to 48 kHz, according to 9to5Mac. But if Apple wants to implement high-fidelity playback, it could easily do so by adding the necessary iPhone hardware and iOS software optimizations. It's not by any means a task that justifies killing the 3.5-millimeter headphone jack. The prospect of a lossless iTunes store may excite music fans with a trained ear, however.
Can the Lightning port change the way you listen to music?
Lightning headphones would certainly be smarter than your average earbuds since they could theoretically exchange far more data with iOS devices, but here again the question is about payoff. Headphones can already control music playback and handle voice calls with physical controls. What else is left? Switching to the Lightning port could possibly help advance Apple's health goals. A previous rumor about vital-reading earbuds was fake, but maybe the idea isn't so crazy; the patents are there.
There's also the matter of design. Apple is seemingly obsessed with making its hardware thinner, but a 3.5-millimeter port is barely taller than the Lightning connection itself. After all, as Ars Technica points out, it fits without issue inside the current, ultra-slim iPod touch. Still, losing the 3.5mm jack could afford the company precious new room for battery. It wouldn't be much, but you could argue that every millimeter counts. Perhaps Apple is working to make its future iPhones tougher and get rid of another port vulnerable to water, but Samsung and Sony have shown this isn't necessary with their own water-resistant designs. 9to5Mac seems fairly confident there will come a day when you unwrap a pair of Beats with a built-in Lightning cable. If that actually pans out, we assume Apple will be ready to address the question of why.
Update: Article has been updated with additional context on potential health and battery gains.