Killing the headphone jack shows Apple, Google willing to anger users for sake of design

I’ve just finished tying up my running shoes and I just need one more thing before I head out the door for my jog – a pair of wired earbuds.

I find a pair on my living room coffee table, untangle them and jam the plug into the 3.5mm jack on my Pixel. I tap on my smartphone and the latest episode of This American Life starts playing. A simple and satisfying experience – from scooping up the headphones to hearing what I want in a matter of seconds. No menus to navigate. Nothing to sync. Just pure, sweet analog audio.

Yet if I were to upgrade to Google’s new Pixel 2 smartphone announced last week, this experience would no longer be possible. Google, like Apple before it with the iPhone 7 and more recently Andy Rubin’s Essential phone, has decided to kill the headphone jack. The only analog component on these modern shiny slabs of digital chipsets is no more. Instead, users will be listening to podcasts and music using headphones that connect either wirelessly through Bluetooth or with a USB-C connection.

You can’t argue against the fact tech giants Apple and Google are incredibly good at making technology that people find delightful to use. Leaders from these Silicon Valley paragons often point to their focus on the user experience as the reason for that success. But the decision to kill the headphone jack seems out of step with that approach. It feels more like these tech firms are telling us all what we should want and how we should be using technology, rather than just making our lives easier by adapting to our current behaviours.

To some degree, asking consumers that are already buying a brand new smartphone for well over $1,000 to shell out even more money for new accessories shows a lack of respect. There’s no coincidence that both Apple and Google launched expensive wireless earbuds at the same time they ripped the headphone jack away from us.

The best attempt Google has made to soothe those upset about its plans to kill the headphone jack is a customer service blog post from an employee named Orrin Hancock. Here’s his explanation:

“The Pixel 2 still comes with a headphone jack but we have moved to USB-C, a standard that is becoming commonplace in the best phones and laptops of today. Moving to the USB-C audio port with Pixel 2 allows us to provide a better audio and digital experience, as we move towards a bezel-less future.”

The first prong of Orrin’s argument is a head scratcher – USB-C is indeed becoming more commonplace, but that doesn’t mean it has to be used for anything and everything. Plus, Google itself is playing a hand in making this commonplace by following the trend. Next, he tells us that we’ll get “better audio” and promises more bezel reductions in the future. (Because it’s just a widely accepted fact that bezel is evil and must be reduced, even if it means costs to usability.)

Orrin goes on to suggest that the solution is simply to buy another headset for the Pixel 2. He lists a dozen options that are currently available, including Google’s own Pixel Buds. The lowest price for any of these is $145 USD. Then there are six other options that are not yet available.

At least he didn’t even entertain the reasoning that you could use an adapter to enable your current headphones with the Pixel 2. It’s rare that users want to tote around such an accessory, and if they do, only a matter of time until it’s lost.

Most people are like me and just want to use the several pairs of $20 earbuds they have already. A Yahoo Finance survey of 7,741 people released in August proves it. For iPhone users, 71 per cent think it was a bad move. For Android users, 73 per cent said they were less likely to switch because of the absence of a headphone jack.

In September, we saw both Apple and Google ignore the collective opinion of their customers and release phones with no headphone jack. It looks like engineers that dream of all-digital circuit diagrams and bezel-less displays are winning the battle.

But there’s still hope the tide could turn. On Aug. 23, there was a surreal moment at the Samsung Unwrapped event. Samsung was unveiling its Galaxy Note 8 device, marking the return of the device to the market since its last iteration literally went up in flames last year. Yet Samsung senior vice-president Justin Denison knew it would be simple to get customers back on board. To set up his mic drop moment, he held up a pair of Harman headphones that come included with the Note 8.

“Guess what you can do with these earphones?,” he said, “That’s right – you can plug them into the standard earphone jack.”

The crowd went wild. It was the single loudest moment at the event. Here’s a phone that has wireless charging, is practically waterproof, has a beautiful huge screen and tons of storage space, plus just about every software feature you could dream up. But people were the most excited by the inclusion of a technology that was invented in the 19th century.

Later that same day that I enjoyed Ira Glass’ storytelling during my jog, I flew to Chicago. Every hardened business traveler knows that a pair of wired earbuds is crucial to pack into your carry-on. Not only can you plug them into the onboard entertainment system, you can also get away with using them with your smartphone during landing preparations if you’re stealthy.

It’s just one more example of the small benefits of supporting a technology that is already universal. But if Samsung also decides it’s time for the headphone jack to go, then it’ll be lost. I’ll be doomed to frustration as I am fumbling around in my bag for an adapter, so I can keep on listening to podcasts while the plane descends.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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