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Bluetooth won’t replace the headphone jack — walled gardens will

Bluetooth won’t replace the headphone jack — walled gardens will


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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Yesterday, Google announced the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, two phones I’ve been excited about for a while now. They have big screens, a delightfully playful design sensibility, and what promises to be a fascinating upgrade to the previous Pixel’s best-in-class camera.

They also don’t have headphone jacks.

Predictably, my Twitter replies exploded. Last year I wrote a piece calling the removal of headphone jacks from phones “user-hostile and stupid” in the lead-up to the iPhone 7 launch. Google and Samsung certainly weren’t shy in pointing out that their phones retained the 3.5mm connector, and now it’s gone from the Pixel 2. If Google and Apple agree on something, it has to be the correct decision, right?

If Google and Apple agree on something, it has to be the correct decision, right?

Well, I don’t think so. (And just like last year, I would point you to my friend and colleague Vlad Savov, who argues that losing the headphone jack is perhaps not so bad. He’s smart, that Vlad.)

So, here’s the problem: headphones, as we have understood them for decades, were once terrifically simple. You could plug any headphones from virtually anywhere into virtually anything, and they would just work. Anyone could make headphones, anyone could sell them, and all of those people could address the entire market of people who wanted to listen to things.

As the headphone jack disappears, the obvious replacement isn’t another wire with a proprietary connector like Apple’s Lightning or the many incompatible and strange flavors of USB-C audio. It’s Bluetooth. And Bluetooth continues to suck, for a variety of reasons. Newer phones like the iPhone 8, Galaxy S8, and the Pixel 2 have Bluetooth 5, which promises to be better, but 1) there are literally no Bluetooth 5 headphones out yet, and 2) we have definitely heard that promise before. So we’ll see.

What’s fair and rational for platform vendors isn’t always great for consumers

To improve Bluetooth, platform vendors like Apple and Google are riffing on top of it, and that means they’re building custom solutions. And building custom solutions means they’re taking the opportunity to prioritize their own products, because that is a fair and rational thing for platform vendors to do.

Unfortunately, what is fair and rational for platform vendors isn’t always great for markets, competition, or consumers. And at the end of this road, we will have taken a simple, universal thing that enabled a vibrant market with tons of options for every consumer, and turned it into yet another limited market defined by ecosystem lock-in.

The playbook is simple: last year, Apple dropped the headphone jack and replaced it with its W1 system, which is basically a custom controller chip and software management layer for Bluetooth. The exemplary set of W1 headphones is, of course, AirPods, but Apple also owns Beats, and there are a few sets of W1 Beats headphones available as well. You can still use regular Bluetooth headphones with an iPhone, and you can use AirPods as regular Bluetooth headphones, but the combination iPhone / W1 experience is obviously superior to anything else on the market. No one else can make W1 headphones, and obviously no one else can modify iOS to support their own custom wireless Bluetooth riff. So your choices are the four W1 headphones, and then a large market of second-class citizens.

Google’s version of this is the Pixel Buds, a set of over-ear neckbuds that serve as basic Bluetooth headphones but gain additional capabilities when used with certain phones. Seamless fast pairing? You need Android N or higher, which most Android phones don’t have. The always-on access to Google Assistant? That’s only for Android phones with Google Assistant; iPhone owners need not apply. And that cool Google Translate integration where Pixel Buds instantly translate languages in real time? Well, that’s entirely exclusive to the Pixel.

Google being Google, some of this stuff is more open than Apple. Vlad has already heard from headphone vendors that are going to support Google’s fast pairing, and there’s an updated version of the beloved Bose QC35s that support Assistant. But all of that stuff is part of Google’s platform, not Bluetooth: it goes away when you use these headphones with something other than Android or a Pixel. Google told me the Pixel Buds will simply be “basic Bluetooth headphones” when used with an iPhone.

Zooming out, it’s also easy to see that headphones are becoming a major piece of the voice / assistant puzzle, and the dominant players in mobile platforms are going to prioritize their own products in significant ways so they can get those assistants in your ears. I would be shocked if Samsung didn’t kill the headphone jack on the next iteration of the Galaxy line and come out with special wireless headphones with exclusive features, like access to Bixby. Everyone wants Bixby headphones, right? Welcome to hell.

Everyone wants Bixby headphones, right? Welcome to hell

Third-party vendors like Shure and Bose should be scared out of their minds: they will never get the system-level access they need to compete with platform owners. Pebble failed as a smartwatch in part because it didn’t have enough access to the operating system to do things the Apple Watch and Android Wear can do, like reply to text messages. That future is coming for your favorite headphone company. How does a Skullcandy or a Bowers & Wilkins compete when they’re relegated to second-class connectivity and feature sets? Why would any rational consumer buy anything but the wireless headphones guaranteed to work best with their phones?

Maybe this will all shake out fine. Maybe Bluetooth 5 is actually wonderful, and enough people don’t care about stable connectivity or real-time Google Translate to keep the headphone market thriving. But there’s a version of the world coming where ecosystem lock-in extends to headphones and speakers, and where every device you own has a different first-party set of wireless audio accessories that work best inside a closed loop of software and services. The walls just keep closing in.

And that... is pretty user-hostile and stupid.