Yes, Apple’s ‘Headphone Jack-free’ iPhone 7 Is a Design (and Branding) Mistake

Design September 8, 2016

Decrying the latest tech company foibles isn’t a practice I typically undertake, however, when Apple debuted their latest iPhone, it became an object lesson I couldn’t ignore.

By now, you’ve likely heard about the scandal surrounding the iPhone 7’s headphone jack. If not, it’s simply this: they’re removing it.

“Ah, but surely they’re replacing it with something better!” you say. And the answer is: yeah, not really. Via Apple:

EarPods. With a Lightning connector.

iPhone 7 comes with EarPods that have a Lightning connector. But if you still want to listen through your old headphones, you can plug them in using a 3.5 mm headphone jack adapter, also included.

Image credit: Apple

This sounds nice in theory and simplifies the design (except for the extra adapter)—a branding characteristic for which Apple has been well known. However, it’s not quite the same as removing a CD drive from notebooks—a thing Apple did a while back that worked out well, enabling them to create a slimmer, more lightweight design.

While removing the headphone jack does unclutter and simplify the aesthetic portion of the concept, it completely undermines the functional (and more important) part of the design. You know, the whole “form over function” thing.

In effect, the jack-removal accomplished two things (aside from simplification):

  1. Makes %99.99 of the planet’s headphones incompatible with the device, save for an extra adapter.
  2. Prevents you from listening to headphones and charging your phone at the same time.*

* That is unless you want to purchase the $160 “AirPods.” (Sadly for Apple, the name “Air Bud” has already been taken, but I digress)

In many ways, the move is one step forward and two steps back.

As with any design (or branding) decision; adding, accenting, or improving functionality should be the end goal. Never simply stripping away functionality for the purpose of something that merely “looks pretty.”

And of course, no Apple article would be complete without a quote from Steve Jobs:

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

—Steve Jobs

Design aside, the branding and messaging have been equally, shall we say, odd. Via Chris Taylor over at Mashable:

And I’ve never heard anything as ridiculous emanate from that stage as I did Wednesday, when marketing chief Phil Schiller explained why the iPhone 7 would not have a standard 3.5mm aux cable input, better known as the headphone jack.

“It comes down to one word,” Schiller said. “Courage. The courage to move on and do something better for all of us.”

Schiller was thoroughly mocked for those words on Twitter, and rightly so. Courage is marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in 1965. Courage is facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square or a machine gun nest on the beaches of Normandy. Courage, by definition, involves doing something that makes you afraid.

And what has Apple done? It has eradicated the most successful, most widespread and best-sounding audio standard in the world in favor of its own proprietary system.

Simplicity is a powerful tool in design. The challenge is finding that balance between “less is more,” and “let’s throw in everything up to and including the kitchen sink.”

In Conclusion

All these things aside—the purpose here isn’t to harp on Apple. At the end of the day, people will still buy their iPhones, and it’s highly unlikely there will be a pitchfork-wielding mob outside your local Apple Retail Store®.

However, as with any of the big brands, there’s much we can learn about our own design, branding, and marketing efforts that make it worth the consideration.

What do you think? Is the headphone jack-removal a giant mistake—or is the outcry overblown?

4 thoughts on “Yes, Apple’s ‘Headphone Jack-free’ iPhone 7 Is a Design (and Branding) Mistake

  1. So, do you think that Apple will have the courage to take the final step to the ultra-clean design of a connectorless device and remove the lightning connector entirely for the iPhone 8? Wireless charging is now mature technology — Samsung phones have both Qi and PowerMat charging. Someone can even make an airPod-compatible dongle with a headphone jack, the way we used to have audio cassettes with wires coming out of them in order to use our iPods with primitive car stereo systems.

    1. Yes, I think this is right. Apple seems to do everything in stages rather than all at once.

      That said, it seems a “connector-free” or entirely wireless device seems the next logical step.

  2. I disagree, Apple is being remarkably consistent. The first iMac “only” had USB – no SCSI, no floppy disc drive. They replaced the 30 pin connector with the Lightning connector. They deleted the optical drive from the MacBook line. The latest MacBook only has a USB-C connector. The reaction has been similar with all of these changes. Eventually, other companies and more importantly, their clientele, have accepted and adopted these changes. Wired headphones are a dying technology. Apple anticipates this and their designs reflect this. Makes sense to me.

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