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26 October 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:23am

The march of progress

Why tech has to enrage to improve.

By Amelia Tait

Henry Ford supposedly once said that “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – but he was wrong. They would have said “faster horses with a headphone jack”. Such is the devotion to this tiny feature, made apparent after Apple announced that the new iPhone 7 would not have anywhere to plug in your headphones, that more than 300,000 people have signed a petition asking for the standard 3.5mm jack to be reinstated for the iPhone.

In the new model, launched on 7 September, it has been replaced by a “Lightning” port. This means the phone is thinner, but customers will have to buy wireless headphones or use an adaptor to listen to music. Tweets trended and think pieces were angrily shared, but already the outrage is winding down. In a few months, no one will care.

It’s a familiar pattern. It happened when Apple gave the iPhone 5 a thinner charging cable in 2012, and it even happened when it removed the floppy disk drive from the iMac in 1998. The company knows that innovation entails ruffling feathers. Steve Jobs even had his own version of Ford’s apocryphal quote: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The problem is that we have become greedy. We don’t want what Apple is showing us – a confusing mess of adaptors and tricky Bluetooth connections – because it isn’t easy and it doesn’t work perfectly yet. Instead, we want the eventual outcome – phones with larger batteries, better sound quality, and cheap, long-lasting, wireless headphones – now.

To get there, unfortunately, we have to wait. And, yes, that is annoying. But televisions didn’t arrive flat-screened and glossy: our ancestors suffered through crackly black-and-white broadcasts so that the industry could innovate. We, in turn, need to suffer through unwelcome wireless headphones and annoying adaptors. You could argue the 3.5mm headphone jack already works perfectly, but that’s like your great-grandfather saying: “What do I need a television for? I’ve got this painting.”

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The thing is, nobody likes wires. They get tangled, they got lost, and absolutely everyone has a drawer full of mysterious ones that they keep “just in case”. Apple’s decision has already provoked other companies into improving their own wireless technology. Of course, it’s annoying that wireless headphones have a limited battery life and are easier to lose, but now, given the scale of consumer demand, tech giants will be forced to find solutions.

So what of Apple’s own wireless earphone offering, the £159 “AirPods”? Yes, it’s a scandalous amount of money, but no one claimed Apple was innovating out of sheer goodness. We live in a capitalist society where profits drive change. If you hate the idea of the AirPods, don’t buy them; and if you really, truly love the headphone jack, then don’t buy the iPhone 7 either.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? Many of those complaining about the removal of the headphone jack are doing so because they know they will eventually buy both the phone and a pair of wireless headphones. People don’t like this because they feel as if they don’t have a choice. We don’t like to be reminded that, in order to have the best, we have to sacrifice the familiar.

As Ford’s horses and your great-grandad’s painting prove, people don’t deserve a choice. Almost every time the social media giant Facebook updates its home page, a petition pops up demanding the company “BRING BACK THE OLD FACEBOOK!”. People despise change, and as Brexit voters’ desire for the “good old days” proves, they have no problem with moving backwards either.

This is not to say that planned obsolescence – the strategy of designing products with deliberately limited lifespans – is not despicable. That the average life of a laptop is between three and five years is ridiculous, and companies do need to be held accountable for this. But if Apple hadn’t removed the headphone jack, the company’s latest phone would be obsolete, too. It would be flashier, but it would have little else to offer.

Almost every major invention in the history of the world has angered someone. Monks hated the printing press, Warner Brothers was sceptical about movies with sound, Socrates even thought that writing things down was a step too far in humanity’s progress. The truth is that, in order to move forward, technology companies will have to force people out of their comfort zones. A spate of angry rants has now become the predictable price of progress.

In the end, whether you buy that – or the new £599, headphone-jackless iPhone 7 – is up to you. 

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