Why Apple removed the headphone port from the iPhone 7

September 10 2016

By now you've probably read that the new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus do not include a dedicated headphone port. I've heard a lot of opinions and theories on why this might be and I thought it would be fun to compile a list with my thoughts next to each one:

Space Reduction

When the iPhone 7 was announced last week, Apple said that removing the headphone port allowed them to use the space to include some better components. This makes some sense given that Apple wanted to increase the sensors inside of the home button and include an improved Taptic engine. In that part of the iPhone, real estate is definitely expensive. This also makes sense because the headphone port, like the old 32-pin connector, is one of the tallest components inside of the phone. Removing the headphone port will allow for Apple to keep reducing the thickness of the iPhone, just like moving from the 32-pin connector to the lightning connector did.

...playing devil's advocate though, do we really need a thinner iPhone? It's certainly my opinion that my iPhone 6 is lighter and thinner than I find ideal. I liked the robust feeling (weight, thickness and size) of my iPhone 4/4S. If I were Apple, I would have stopped at the proportions of the 5/5S/SE, but they know their market far better than I do.

Water Proofing

Another cause for removal that Apple cited was water-proofing. Apple says that to achieve a water protection rating of 'IP67' they had to remove the headphone port.

I don't see this point as valid because a 3.5mm port is completely solid-state and requires no membranes for air to pass through (unlike the speakers, which they doubled on the iPhone 7). I also don't buy this point because Samsung has solved this problem with a fairly trivial solution as can be seen in this video (skip to 2:08):

Thirdly, I don't buy into this because they clearly solved sealing off the lighting port in the iPhone 7. The headphone port would be no less difficult to seal off.

Wireless Future

Apple cited that they think the future for listening to and interacting with our phones is going to be increasingly wireless. Implied in that, plus the removal of the headphone port, is that now is the time to cut the cord. Apple put their money where their mouth is by developing Airpods, their second wireless earpiece set (I think their first offering from 2007 pictured below is beautiful, and had better battery life):

Apple Bluetooth Headset

I don't doubt that the future for listening and interaction over audio is wireless, but battery technology just doesn't seem to want to support right now being the time to chuck all our wired headphones. I commend Apple for their efforts in developing the Airpods - it seems like much of the pairing complexity has been eliminated, which is certainly a step towards this wireless future. They have always been a company that tries to develop products derived from technologies on their ascension so none of this is all that surprising to me. I do, however, feel that a 4 hour battery life won't cut it for most consumers.

I'd better stop here, otherwise this will become a review of the Airpods, which I haven't gotten a chance to play with yet!

Capitalism

This is the first opinion I've read which hasn't been corroborated by Apple (for obvious reasons). Some people think that Apple is dropping the headphone port because it can make more money by charging a licensing fee to headphone manufacturers who want to use the lightning port under Apple's MFI program. This is an interesting point seeing as it wasn't too long ago that Apple bought a successful headphone accessory company in the US (Beats).

At the time, many people thought that this acquisition was for the music licenses and relationships that Beats had created for it's own streaming music service (which was eventually folded into Apple Music). I'm sure this is true, but in light of the removal of the headphone port, I wonder if the licensing advantages were only a small part of the benefits of the acquisition. It strikes me that there's a 1-2-3 punch here:

  1. Buy a successful headphone company and make sure they support lightning as a connection type for their top of the line headphones.
  2. Limit iPhone 7 customer choice to headphones that support lightning.
  3. Profit as other headphone manufacturers scramble to license and manufacture lightning-capable headphones.

Even if none of this is true, there's still the obvious profit from the licensing fee to properly include support for lighting audio in your products. Apple has the right (and the capital) to sue companies who try to build products without paying this fee.

Even if profit wasn't a factor in the decision to remove the headphone port (and I'd be shocked if it wasn't), Apple does come out ahead in profit by forcing the Bose's of the world to use the lightning port for audio (provided iPhone sales don't diminish from the decision). It's also worth noting that if profit wasn't a factor in Apple's design and engineering decisions than why develop the lightning port in the first place? Why not just use USB-C ports (an open, free standard) which they're already using in their laptops and on the Apple TV?

Conclusion

From my perspective, the removal of the headphone port was a combination of all of the pro's of the assertions above outweighing the con's of having to lead us consumers through their reasoning. Time will tell if they got the math right as consumers will vote with their wallets. Steve Jobs himself was keenly aware of this (skip to 1:50):

I, for one, already have voted with my wallet. My iPhone 7 arrives on Friday and I'm looking forward to this wireless future - even if it's a little painful at first.