Apple's Lightning and wireless headphone story

I enjoy some of the carnival that happens in the days and weeks before an Apple keynote event. The part that I enjoy most is fantasizing about what the future might hold.

I don't particularly enjoy the leaks of parts and cases or shaky-cam photos of parts. I also don't really like speculating about whether any of the news is real or fake.This is in the same way that I don't like opening my Christmas presents before Christmas morning. 

This year has been particularly interesting with all the rumours around the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone.

So, here are my predictions:

  • the headphone jack on the iPhone will disappear
  • Lightning headphone (EarPods) will come in the box
  • a Lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor will come in the box this year (and maybe next year because of the 2-year replacement cycle for phones)
  • the two-piece wireless headset (AirPods) does not exist

For most of the past few months, the noise has been getting louder about the removal of the headphone jack. Also, for most of the past few months I was thinking that it was unlikely that Apple would be bold enough to actually remove it. 

However, Apple is good at creating controlled leaks to kill any stories that they don't want told. For this reason, I'm starting to come around to believing the idea that the headphone jack is toast.

To me this is an interesting development where the drawbacks are seriously overblown by scare stories in the media.

Here's why I don't think it's a big deal:

  • the iPhone comes with headphones in the box so everyone will be able to listen to music on day one.
  • 95%+ of iPhone users will use the supplied headphones.
  • I think that it is very likely that a Lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor will come in the box this year to get ahead of the PR about the removal of the port.

The media will be all over the removal of the headphone jack for one reason: writing hysterical,  controversial, ALLCAPS, click-bait articles about Apple sells papers and gets clicks. This doesn't mean that the general Apple-buying public will actually care or that it is a big deal.  

That leaves the question of what strategy Apple will be pushing. Are they going with Lightning headphones? Are they going with wireless? Is it a combined strategy of Lightning and wireless? Or is it something else entirely?

I'm thinking that Apple are just going with Lightning headphones. Lightning headphones in the box are almost a certainty.

However many rumour sites think that a combined strategy of wireless and Lightning headphones is more likely. This doesn't quite seem right to me. There are many rumours about "AirPods". These would be individual single-ear Bluetooth headphones.

With any amount of thought, I'm can't see how something like the AirPod is practical. There are at least three good reasons why these in-ear lice would be an awful user experience:

  • the ear-louse is tiny with an equally tiny battery, and consequently a tiny battery life
  • the short battery life also means that they will constantly need charging. Both of them. Probably daily.
  • the ear-louse is tiny and easy to lose. You need two of them to provide a good user experience and one of them is bound to get lost.

As a company, Apple likes to make small, yet significantly changes on a regular basis. Always moving forward. Slowly yet constantly.  Apple also likes to solve difficult problems in an elegant way. USB was better than pre-USB (ADB, serial, floppy drives, etc). Touch screens are better than keyboards. Retina is better than pre-Retina.

Removing the headphone jack is arguably a small yet significant change, and also argubly an elegant solution. It might not be better today but likely will be better in a couple of years once more products support it. This is just like the way that the move to USB took a while for the advantages to become real. 

Two separate "AirPods" is not an elegant solution or a step forward, more like wishful thinking.

I will be interested to see if Apple does have a wireless headphone solution. Most of their advances in headphones recently have been pushed by Beats rather than Apple so the release of a wireless headset would be a change in strategy.

The only part where my thoughts on Apple's wireless strategy don't quite make sense is with the Apple Watch. The Watch was released with Bluetooth and the ability to play music from the Watch while out walking or running without a phone. This had always seemed a little awkward to me, especially since neither Apple nor Beats sell wireless headphones that are lightweight enough use while exercising. Maybe, despite my doubts, there is something coming.

Personally, I have been using wireless headphones for about 7 years. I started out with the Nokia BH-905, until I wore them out. They were a good compact size (being on-ear rather than over-the-ear headphones) with pretty good noise-cancelling. They were great when I was living in London and travelling on the tube every day. 

This year I replaced them with some Sony MDR-ZX770BN headphones (why such long model numbers, Sony?). I'm not that keen on the large over-the-ear style, the noise-cancelling isn't as good as the Nokia and they feel a bit cheap and plasticky. However, there isn't much choice in headphones that are both Bluetooth and noise-cancelling, which is my preference, and my budget doesn't quite stretch to the Bose QC35's (or was it the 25's?).

There is no way that I would go back to wired headphones. It's amazing how freeing the lack of wires is. Wireless is the future for headphones, as it has been for phones, computers, networking, etc.

The removal of the headphone port is the first step on the wireless journey. Is Apple going to take any other steps on that journey this week too?