BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski has a big story diving into Apple’s decision to kill the headphone jack, which is definitely worth a read. Basically, the company’s decision boiled down to letting go of a single-use analog port to create more room inside the phone’s case for a larger battery, additional camera components, and the Taptic Engine haptic system that enables the new not-a-button home button. And it made it slightly easier to waterproof the phone. These are all good arguments! It’s debatable whether they are good enough arguments, but there is no denying that Apple has its reasons.
But BuzzFeed also went straight at Apple execs with the many, many reasons people (including me!) have criticized the decision to remove the headphone jack, and Apple execs had answers to those criticisms. One exchange caught my eye in particular:
The headphone jack is great for delivering audio, widely used, and unencumbered by patents and digital rights management, critics argued. Why remove it, leaving only an Apple-proprietary digital port that might in some dystopian future be locked down with the very DRM schemes that Steve Jobs bemoaned in his 2007 essay "Thoughts on Music"? Why provide a diminutive headphone jack adapter that will cost me $9 to replace when I inevitably lose it? Why allow even for the possibility of a scenario in which I cannot play a song that I own, whether it be because of copy protection lockdown or a "This accessory has not been certified by Apple" error? How does Apple respond to critics who’ve described removing the headphone jack from the iPhone as "user-hostile"?
Schiller thinks it’s a silly argument. "The idea that there’s some ulterior motive behind this move, or that it will usher in some new form of content management, it simply isn’t true," he says. "We are removing the audio jack because we have developed a better way to deliver audio. It has nothing to do with content management or DRM — that’s pure, paranoid conspiracy theory."
Yes, that’s Phil Schiller saying that the first point I made in an earlier piece calling the removal of the headphone jack "user-hostile and stupid" is "pure paranoid conspiracy theory."
Well, okay. Let’s leave aside the many arguments that simply asking consumers to deal with additional dongles and potentially buy new accessories because Apple wanted to make the phone smaller is fairly aggressive behavior. Let’s just focus on that DRM conspiracy instead.
- Apple already runs a DRM-encumbered music service. It is called, you know, Apple Music. The step from streaming DRM music to authenticated devices to only allowing those devices to output that music to approved audio peripherals is vanishingly small, and the sort of insane demand that record labels are organizationally designed to make. Apple may not want to DRM audio devices, but the record labels might certainly demand it, especially now that they can. Record labels love to exert control just because they can!
- Apple already runs the Made For iPhone program, which charges accessory makers a fee for the use of the Lightning connector, a connector which contains — surprise! — an authentication chip. It’s not particularly sophisticated, but it’s there, and that means anyone who wants to make Lightning audio devices for the new iPhone will have to have those devices approved and pay Apple at least some money per unit.
- If an accessory maker wants to make a contraband Lightning device, Apple might figure out how to disable that device in a future software update, which the company did with some unauthorized cables in iOS 7.
- When we plugged the Apple Lightning-to-headphone-jack adapter into an iPhone 6S at the Apple Event, it popped up a warning saying the device was unsupported and didn’t work, because the phone wasn’t running iOS 10 yet. It is not simply a passive adapter; it requires software support.
- The thing about any digital signal chain controlled by software is that it can be controlled by software, and that means all of the problems inherent to software are present. That means small things like bugs and incompatibilities, but it also means big things like the richest corporation in the world having the power to decide which devices its software can talk to.
- Apple’s vision of the future is wireless audio, and the current foundation of that vision is Bluetooth, which means any Bluetooth device can theoretically get audio out of an iPhone. That’s great — but the best wireless audio experience available in the Apple ecosystem come from either Apple’s AirPods or its new Beats headphones, which use Apple’s proprietary W1 chip atop the Bluetooth protocol. The step from "buy Apple W1 products because they’re easier to use with an iPhone" to "the iPhone only supports officially approved W1 products because that’s all anyone really buys" is, again, vanishingly small.
- Very few people will realistically switch to an Android device simply because of the headphone jack, so the amount of competitive power in the market that might meaningfully check Apple’s behavior is very low.
Now, these are all just dots — there’s no line connecting them yet. But they are dots that Apple has put into the world, and when the most powerful company in technology creates as many dots around a single subject, it’s not a conspiracy theory to suggest that they might one day be connected into the shape of a DRM audio scheme. It’s simply pointing out the obvious.