Nilay Patel, “Taking the Headphone Jack Off Phones Is User-Hostile and Stupid”:
But just face facts: ditching the headphone jack on phones makes them worse, in extremely obvious ways. Let’s count them!
And let’s compare them to arguments against removing floppy drives from the iMac in 1998.
1. Digital audio means DRM audio
Restricting audio output to a purely digital connection means that music publishers and streaming companies can start to insist on digital copyright enforcement mechanisms. We moved our video systems to HDMI and got HDCP, remember? Copyright enforcement technology never stops piracy and always hurts the people who most rely on legal fair use, but you can bet the music industry is going to start cracking down on “unauthorized” playback and recording devices anyway.
I’m not familiar with how people are taking advantage of the “analog loophole” to do things with audio out of the iPhone headphone port that would be forbidden using the digital Lightning port, but now seems like a good time to raise the big question: Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when? Maybe now is the wrong time, and Apple is making a mistake. I don’t know. None of us outside the company seem to know, because all that has leaked is that the new iPhone won’t have the port, with no explanation why. But I say at some point it will go away, and now seems like it might be the right time. Also, historically, Apple has proven to be very good at timing the removal of established legacy ports.
Patel misses the bigger problem. It’s not enforcement of DRM on audio playback. It’s enforcement of the MFi Program for certifying hardware that uses the Lightning port. Right now any headphone maker in the world can make any headphones they want for the standard jack. Not so with the Lightning port.
We deal with DRM when it comes to video because we generally don’t rewatch and take TV shows and movies with us, but you will rue the day Apple decided to make the iPhone another 1mm thinner the instant you get a “playback device not supported” message. Winter is coming.
As an aside, whatever the merits of this decision, it’s not about device thinness. The iPhone 6 is the thinnest iPhone to date at 6.9mm. The iPod Touch has a headphone jack and is just 6.1mm thick. The iPod Nano: 5.4mm. The analog headphone jack is more costly in terms of depth than thickness.
2. Wireless headphones and speakers are fine, not great
Totally agree. But the rumor is that the new iPhone will ship with wired Lightning earbuds.
3. Dongles are stupid, especially when they require other dongles
External floppy drives sucked too.
4. Ditching a deeply established standard will disproportionately impact accessibility
The traditional headphone jack is a standard for a reason — it works. It works so well that an entire ecosystem of other kinds of devices has built up around it, and millions of people have access to compatible devices at every conceivable price point. The headphone jack might be less good on some metrics than Lightning or USB-C audio, but it is spectacularly better than anything else in the world at being accessible, enabling, open, and democratizing.
Apple is the company that brought us the 30-pin and Lightning ports, and whose iPhones, iPods, and iPads have never had USB ports. “Enabling, open, and democratizing” have never been high on Apple’s list of priorities for external ports. They’re on the list, to be sure. Just not high on the list.
5. Making Android and iPhone headphones incompatible is so incredibly arrogant and stupid there’s not even explanatory text under this one
Why would Apple care about headphone compatibility with Android? If Apple gave two shits about port compatibility with Android, iPhones would have Micro-USB ports. In 1998 people used floppy drives extensively for sneaker-netting files between Macs and PCs. That didn’t stop Apple from dropping it.
The incompatibility that matters is with Apple’s own devices, particularly MacBooks. Presumably Apple’s Lightning earbuds will work on iPads, too. But it’s going to suck having to use different headphones (or a dongle) for the Mac than you use with your iOS devices.1 But again, this is no different than the transition from 30-pin to Lightning. You have to start somewhere. (Unless you believe Apple should stick with the analog headphone jack as we know it forever — but I told you people to stop reading way back at the top.)
6. No one is asking for this
Raise your hand if the thing you wanted most from your next phone was either fewer ports or more dongles.
I didn’t think so. You wanted better battery life, didn’t you? Everyone just wants better battery life.
“No one” asked for the iMac to remove the floppy drive or switch from ADB ports to USB (at a time when PCs weren’t shipping with USB either, which meant few — I mean really few — existing USB peripherals on the market). There was a huge outcry when the iPhone 5 dumped the proprietary-but-ubiquitous 30-pin port for the proprietary-and-all-new Lightning port. MacBook Air fans are still complaining about the new MacBook’s solitary USB-C port.
This is how it goes. If it weren’t for Apple we’d probably still be using computers with VGA and serial ports. The essence of Apple is that they make design decisions “no one asked for”.
And as for battery life, surely removing the deep headphone socket can only leave more room for a larger battery.
Vote with your dollars.
We shall see. But I bet people will do just that. And in five years we’ll look at analog headphone jacks the way we look at all the other legacy ports we’ve abandoned. ★
Will MacBooks ship with a Lightning port in lieu of a headphone jack? If so, will they ship with headphones? (Probably not, I say. Cough up the extra $29 for a new pair of Apple EarPods.) Is this why we haven’t seen new MacBook Pros yet — because they’re waiting for the new iPhone, so that both can go Lightning-for-audio at the same time? Perhaps. ↩︎
Moscone West isn’t big enough for 5,000 attendees to fit in a room, so a few thousand WWDC attendees always had to sit in an overflow room where they’d watch the keynote on video. That’s a major reason why attendees would line up at the crack of dawn, even though the keynotes start at 10 am. The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium has no such limitation, and it was nice to see (and hear) all attendees. The sound system there was just great, and the huge screen behind the stage was good too. I give the new venue a thumbs-up.
I was hoping for a thorough reinvention of the WatchOS UI navigation structure, and it looks like we got it. Glances are gone — an updated app for WatchOS 3 is a glance. Just tap the side button once to see the new “Dock”, and the apps in the Dock are live views of the actual apps. A conceptual simplification, along with a deliberate effort to reduce many common tasks to just one or two taps, is just what the doctor ordered for Apple Watch.
As for the purported dramatic improvements to app launching times and background data refreshing, I’ll believe it when I see it, but it sounds like an amazing year-over-year improvement.
I’d be happy if the only new feature were the system-wide single-sign on for authenticating with your cable provider to use apps that require proof that you subscribe to a traditional TV service.
It didn’t make the keynote, but another change to tvOS that games can now require a dedicated gaming controller. I can see why Apple didn’t allow that — they wanted to push developers to support the Siri Remote as a controller. But some games simply require a real controller. That requirement was holding back the platform. (“Common sense prevails” is arguably the theme of this year’s announcements.)
I love the name change, but as someone who remembers when the classic Mac operating system was called “Mac OS”, I’m finding it tough to type without the space. Back then, “MacOS” was considered a typo.
The new “Continuity” features between devices sound great. Auto-unlocking your Mac with your Apple Watch is a very cool feature, as is the new Universal Clipboard. (That’s not really a Mac feature — it works from one iOS device to another, too.)
I don’t have time to write about all the new features that were announced today (let alone all the ones that didn’t even make the keynote), but looking over my notes, it strikes me that these are all very practical improvements. Everyone encounters the lock screen; Apple has made it more useful. Siri is smarter and can now integrate with third-party apps. Computer vision analysis of your photos — if it works well — will be useful to anyone who takes a lot of photos.
But perhaps the biggest change wasn’t even mentioned on stage. Most built-in system apps can now be removed from your device.1 Third-party VoIP apps can now commandeer the lock screen when an incoming call arrives — something that until now was reserved for the Phone and FaceTime apps. Likewise, third-party messaging apps can be specified as the default for people on a per-contact basis. iOS 10 looks like the anti-lock-in release.
I’ve been arguing for a while now that iMessage is vastly under-appreciated as one of the most popular and best messaging platforms in the world. I think because it’s only for Apple devices it somehow doesn’t count in some people’s minds, even though there are (according to Apple) a billion Apple devices in use.
Messages is the most-used app on iOS, so it makes sense for Apple to spend a lot of time and attention on it. With the bigger emoji, stickers, and “bubble effects”, it’s clear that a lot of Apple’s work went into making Messages just plain fun. But the new extension APIs that allow for “iMessage Apps” strike me as turning iMessage into a genuine platform. One way to think about it is as an effort to move away from sharing plain text (and often ugly, unreadable) URLs that open in Safari and instead exchange software “objects” that are usable right there in the message thread.
We don’t have Xcode for iPad yet, but this is a start. It looks like a lot of fun and a great way to learn Swift or even just how to program, period. This is the most approachable programming environment from Apple since HyperCard. I’m interested to see whether Playground files wind up like HyperCard stacks. ★
Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be a way to specify a third-party app as the default handler for things like “mailto:” links, even if you remove the system Mail app. I hope that’s just something Apple hasn’t gotten to yet. ↩︎
From Lauren Goode’s interview with Phil Schiller for The Verge, specifically regarding the new 85/15 revenue split after the first year of a subscription (italic emphasis mine):
But Schiller insisted that it wasn’t any kind of “Apple tax” backlash or companies encouraging users to go to their own websites that drove Apple’s new subscription model: “It wasn’t done from a negative like that,” he says. When I asked about this, he stresses that it was “absolutely done because we recognize that developers do a lot of work to retain a customer over time in a subscription model, and we wanted to reward them for that by helping them to keep more of the revenue.” Apple can help drive customers to the original download, Schiller argues, but only the developer can keep the customer over time and “we want to incent them to do that.”
Schiller imagines scenarios where many kinds of apps that were previously single-time purchases could move to the model. Games that have an ongoing subscription-like program, ones that have a massive online playing world that require upgrades of game worlds, might make sense. He suggests many enterprise apps could move to subscription, and that professional apps that require “a lot of maintenance of new features and versions” would be a good fit.
That’s pretty much exactly what Schiller told me yesterday too, which colored my take on the breadth of apps that could take advantage of subscription pricing. I wrote:
This dramatically changes the economics of the App Store. Until now, productivity apps could charge up front as paid downloads and that was it. Updates had to be free, or, to charge for major new versions, developers would have to play confusing games by making the new version an entirely new SKU in the app store. Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific, for example, did this, to justify years of ongoing development. Now, apps like this can instead charge an annual/monthly/etc. subscription fee.
But Apple’s own “What’s New in Subscriptions” web page makes this uncertain:
Starting this fall, apps in all categories on the App Store will be eligible to offer in-app purchases for auto-renewable subscriptions to services or content. Users enjoy the reliability that comes with subscribing to a service that they love, and the experience must provide ongoing value worth the recurring payment for an auto-renewable subscription to make sense. Although all categories of apps will be eligible, this business model is not appropriate for every app.
Like many freemium apps, successful auto-renewable subscription apps operate as services that are continuously supported, and often require sustained content development or feature enhancements to retain users. Whether updating content on a regular basis, providing on-demand use of a service, or giving access to a large collection of content, successful auto-renewable subscription apps are equipped to offer continued utility and enjoyment to their subscribers.
In a sidebar titled “Types of Auto-Renewable Subscriptions”, Apple lists only two, “Content” and “Services”:
Provide paid access to content that is updated or delivered on a regular basis, such as newspapers, educational courses, or audio or video libraries.
Provide paid access to an ongoing service within your app, such as cloud storage or massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs).
Professional apps that require “a lot of maintenance of new features and versions” don’t fit either of those categories. Would Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific qualify for subscription pricing? After talking to Schiller yesterday, I thought so. Now, I don’t know. Developers are definitely confused.
I have a side project, a Mac app, that I could also do as an iOS app. I have no plans to do so — but the news about subscriptions and free trials makes me reconsider.
It might be sustainable with this new model.
But here’s the thing: the app is a stand-alone thing. I’m not running a backend web service for it. Would it be okay to use the subscription-based pricing? […] What does “not appropriate” mean? Does that mean rejection? Or is that just a warning that it’s maybe not the best fit, but it’s okay to try it anyway?
Schiller obviously knows what he’s talking about, but what he’s said seems to be outside the new written rules. So I think what Apple is trying to do here is discourage frivolous use of subscriptions. I think it’s obvious from Apple’s own description that while apps from any category are now allowed to offer subscription, that doesn’t mean every app will be allowed to. Like with many App Store rules, Apple doesn’t spell things out in detail in order to preserve control and flexibility. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of “obscenity”, I think Apple wants to define “good use of the subscription business model” as “we know it when we see it”.
The problem with that is that developers don’t know whether they’re going to be approved or not. As it stands, they would need to do all the engineering (and design) work to support subscriptions, submit the app, and wait to see if it’s approved and perhaps appeal if it isn’t. That’s bad enough for an existing app whose developer wants to switch to subscription pricing. But this uncertainty is downright untenable for a new app whose developer sees subscription pricing as the only sustainable business model to justify the app’s development in the first place.
The letter of the rules Apple has posted creates counterintuitive incentives for developers. An app with its own proprietary sync service can use the subscription model, but a competing app that provides the same features using CloudKit cannot. But Apple wants developers to use iCloud.
I think Apple should just allow any app to offer subscription pricing, period. Apple’s role should be as the trusted platform vendor, making sure users can easily cancel subscriptions, requiring opt-in to any pricing changes, and making sure no one is being tricked or confused in any way. Otherwise Apple should allow developers to define their use of subscriptions as they see fit. In the same way that developers with paid-up-front apps can pick their own price, and users determine whether it’s worth it or not, developers of subscription-based apps should be able to define their own “here’s what you get when you subscribe” features and let users decide whether they’re worth the price or not. I don’t think Apple ought to control this — the market will work itself out. People won’t sign up for a bad subscription offering for the same reasons they don’t sign up for bad subscription deals in the world outside the App Store.
Apple needs to clarify this to remove the uncertainty.
Another question: If an app is deemed qualified to use subscription pricing, must it be functional in some limited way without a subscription? Apps that use in-app purchases must be functional without the IAP. Is that true for subscription-based apps too?
My understanding is that if an app gets approved for subscription pricing, then it is up to the developer whether the app is useful without a subscription. A simple comparison: Spotify and Netflix. Spotify plays music for free (with ads) even if you don’t pay them a nickel. Netflix, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any content to non-subscribers. I’d like to see Apple clarify this too.
I should add that I don’t think subscription pricing — even if Apple clarified that subscriptions are open to any app, period — are a panacea. There is no perfect way to sell software. The old way — pay up front, then pay for major upgrades in the future — has problems, too, just a different set of problems. If I had my druthers Apple would enable paid upgrades in the App Store(s), but I get the feeling that’s not in the cards. That leaves us with subscriptions.
DF reader Sean Harding framed the problems with subscription pricing well, in a short series of tweets:
I think the new stuff is good, but I don’t think it really solves the upgrade pricing problem from a customer standpoint. A sub forces me to effectively always buy the upgrade or stop using even the old version. I don’t dislike subscriptions because I don’t want to pay. I just want freedom to decide if the new features are worth paying for.
I’d probably be fine with a subscription model, if they degraded nicely. Stop paying, app still works but no more upgrades. That seems fair.
That’s a nice notion, but I’m pretty sure the App Store doesn’t allow for that and never will. A nice side effect of paid downloads is that you, the user, can keep using an old version of an app until it technically no longer runs, because of an OS update or something like that (e.g. a PowerPC binary that no longer runs on Intel-based Macs — a scenario that could happen again if Apple starts putting ARM chips in Macs). With software-as-a-service, when you stop paying for the service, you don’t get to keep using the current version of the app — or if it’s a freemium model, you don’t get to keep using the non-free features that were previously enabled via the subscription.
I can see why some people don’t like this. I personally have a few not-the-latest-version apps that I’m glad still work for me. But this is the way the software economy is moving. Nobody expects a subscription web app/service to continue working if you stop paying for it. With Adobe and Microsoft leading the way, that’s the way the economics of app development are shifting too. ★