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8 September 2016

Does technology have to enrage people in order to progress?

Apple has caused outrage by announcing the death of the headphone jack, but are frustrating innovations necessary for overall technological progress?

By Amelia Tait

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

So, allegedly, said Sir William Preece, the Chief Engineer of the British Post Office in 1878. And so, too, said the world at large last night, when Apple announced the removal of the headphone jack on the brand new iPhone 7. (At least, if you replace “telephone” with “wireless headphones” and “messenger boys” with “wires and stuff”).

Innovative technology giants love stories like this, which show that throughout history humanity has always been resistant to change. People decried the telephone and they scoffed at the internet, so should we really give weight to the 300,000 people petitioning the return of the headphone jack? Perhaps the immortal words of Peep Show’s Super Hans are true: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people.”

“Consumers are very conservative creatures and they like what they know,” says Ben Wood, a mobile and wireless industry analyst at CCS Insight. “Whether it’s changing the remote control that works with your Sky box or the user interface of your TV, change always provokes outrage from consumers. And you know what? It’s funny how quickly they forget.”

Remember when the iPhone 5 launched with the smaller Lightning charging port in 2012? Despite the outcry at the time, the compact cable has become commonplace, and it is nice to have a connector that can be inserted face up or down. In fact, lots of Apple’s innovations have been both disruptive and progressive. Removing the floppy disk drive in the iMac was considered controversial in 1998, but it paved the way for USB and Cloud storage options to become widespread. There is a reason Steve Jobs famously said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

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But hang on, didn’t switching out chargers cost a lot of people a lot of money? And doesn’t Apple want to charge £159 for its wireless headphones, Airpods? Isn’t this all a cynical ploy to make us spend more money by making their old products deliberately obsolete?

“Apple have done something which is previously unprecedented and this reflects their sensitivity to the fact some people will be frustrated,” says Wood. “They’ve put an adapter in the box – albeit not the nicest looking one – but they’ve put an adapter in the box which means that anyone who has got traditional 3.5mm headphones can continue using their phone. Typically Apple would charge you £25 for an adapter for one of their products, so this is a definite peace offering.”


The adapter. Photo: Getty

Alright, alright – but aren’t wireless headphones crap? Doesn’t this mean I won’t be able to charge my phone and listen to music at the same time? Isn’t Bluetooth notoriously difficult, and won’t I have to charge my wireless headphones every five hours?

Well, yes. But the thing is: Sir William Preece wasn’t wrong. Messenger boys were cheap and reliable, and they were definitely once the best option around. When the telephone was launched it was crackly, inconsistent, and difficult to use. But it got better because it had to, and people back then suffered so that the future could be brighter (thanks, ancestors). Yes, it’s a terrifying prospect to lose your expensive Airpods because they don’t have wires, but do you really think companies won’t innovate to find further technological solutions to this problem?

There’s no denying, of course, that Apple’s strategy of planned obsolescence is frustrating to consumers, particularly after their marketing chief Phil Schiller called it an act of “courage” to remove the jack.

“I think it may have been somewhat bold of them to use the word ‘courage’,” says Wood. “But I think if they said ‘progressive’ I might have been more in line with it. If someone has to drag consumers forward kicking and screaming in the interests of progress, like a bigger battery and a better finger print sensor, then Apple are the ones who could get away with it.”

And there’s no doubt, really, that this is progress. The removal of extra ports paves the way for a fully waterproof phone, it frees up space for a bigger battery and screen, Bluetooth headphones will have to innovate and improve, and a wireless world is on the horizon. All this and you can still plug in your old headphones with an adapter.

“It’s a right pain in the arse if you’ve already got all your chargers and battery packs and you have to either remember another cable or buy a new one,” says Wood. “But unfortunately I think it’s the price of progress.

“In 12 months’ time this whole thing will be a distant memory.”