The internet has been ablaze the past few weeks about Apple potentially removing the headphone jack from the next iPhone — a move that’s been heavily rumored for months, and has everything from blurry leaked case images to Wall Street Journal articles backing it up. We don’t know if it’s going to happen, but there’s a bunch of fun pieces to read about the pros and cons of removing the jack, and other fun pieces to read about how Apple might do it.
Also, I hate this idea, and wrote about it.
But anyway! One of the most strongly-held arguments about Apple removing the headphone jack is that Apple has historically been first to drop a legacy technology, sometimes even before the rest of the industry is ready. Apple’s vertical integration, passionate userbase, and scale (both historically small and now immensely huge) allow it to push big changes in a way that few other companies can pull off. The floppy, SCSI, optical drives, VGA — all killed by Apple years before vanishing from the rest of the industry.
But how long does it really take Apple to kill legacy tech? We threw together a chart to map it out. (It would be fun to do this across the entire tech industry, but finding all that data seems virtually impossible. If you figure it out email me and we’ll run it!)
What I never realized is that most Apple I/O standards last about 15 years, give or take. Even the floppy, which seemed like a monumental change when it was removed from the iMac, was only around for 15 years. We take the traditional USB connector for granted, but it’s also been around for about 18 years, and you can see how the new MacBook is ushering it out in favor of USB-C. It’s an interesting cycle.
Second, you can see that all of the heralded "Apple kills X" products like the iMac really just set the stage for Apple to slowly transition various tech out of its lineup. So while the iMac killed ADB, SCSI, and the floppy drive, Apple still shipped all those things in various other (mostly pro) machines for another couple years, because it had lots of customers who wanted those things. That gave the market for USB devices time to mature — creating temptation for those same pro customers to upgrade to newer machines that could take better advantage of all those USB devices.
Some notes on the chart: we only used Macs, iPods, and iOS devices, and we mapped out support against both ports and standards, since it’s really complicated to split them up. The original plastic MacBooks, for instance, supported VGA but had mini VGA ports. Then Apple moved to mini DVI port, then mini DisplayPort, and now Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 use the same port as mini DisplayPort. So the port is still around, but the standard it connects to is radically different.
But then we had to account for the new MacBook’s USB-C connector — it clearly deserves its own line on the chart, even though it’s the same standard with a different port. It’s quite a puzzle! So we did our best. You can find a massive spreadsheet of every Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad and their I/O options here, thanks to our reviews coordinator Michael Moore. Feel free to take this data and make a better chart — I’m curious how else you might break this up.
Of course, you can see the one constant piece of I/O across every Apple product since 1984 — the headphone jack. It’s been there since the first Mac shipped in 1984, and it’s one of the few things on this list that hasn’t even really had an upgrade to the underlying standard, like USB to USB 2. It’s just... the headphone jack. You can see how most Apple I/O standards come to a quick end after the first phase out, but the headphone jack has been the one constant Apple connector for 32 years, twice the usual lifespan. We’ll see if this thing can keep cheating death, I suppose.