Apple Jacked the Headphones – Will it Work?

Time for me to write my The Ringer style op-ed:

Tape Op’s 100th issue from a March 2014 gathered a bunch of top engineers to pen editorials the future of recording technology. The sum total of which resembled something like Tom Cruise in Minority Report – everything wireless, hardware sleeked into display screens, and headphones instead of speaker monitors. It imagines a future in which recording technology will operate on a split-second workflow, with minimal interference between a recordists’ thoughts and their execution.

Meanwhile, the new Werner Herzog documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World featured interviews with several neuroscientists who pointed towards a not-so-distant future in which brain-mapping technology will become so sophisticated that we will be able to tweet thoughts.

Announced yesterday, Apple will make a major step towards these horizons: the new iPhone won’t have a headphone jack. Which is sort of a cop-out anyway, because technically it does. Just, instead of a jack, it’ll have an adapter that you plug into your charger jack, which you can plug your phones into.

So by trying to remove one element from the system, Apple has instead split it into two, with one of those system’s pathways being an annoying extra piece of gear that, as Colbert says, you’ve already lost.

Some people have said this is a ploy for Apple to sell their v. pricey $160 wireless AirPod headphones (what the hell was the point of that Beats acquisition??). I’m not going to opine about Apple’s finances and how this is too easy of an answer to me, but I’ll just say this: Apple suffers from a notoriously first world problem, described by financiers as the Curse of Cash. As of June 2015, Apple had a mountain of over $200 million in cash alone (not assets, property, investments, research & product development etc).

Apple needs to get that money out into the financial ecosystem, by investing in new technologies, acquiring companies, and the etc that big companies always do. Having too much cash is not healthy for companies of their size – it doesn’t appreciate over time like investments, it doesn’t help develop new products, and it doesn’t productively contribute to their internal or the world’s external economy. It just sits there. But they have to deal with a paralysis of what to do with all that money, which is truly a tremendous sum. They don’t need to add to the mountain: they need to take away from it.

I’ve been helping install a SONOS wireless speaker system that, although its basically top-of-the-line for wireless home entertainment has a TON of issues: connectivity, playing speed, library accessibility, file formats, etc. Anyone who’s ever tried putting wireless guitar systems to the test knows how tough those are (even our pal Ben Weinman, who pioneered the idea of a purely wireless guitar, has trouble maintaining signals during their live shows). The product – and the idea of the product – is great, but we’re still figuring out how to make these things work in the long term.

So assuming that this isn’t a cash grab, maybe Apple has truly figured out how to ship out millions of phones that will presumably maintain their wireless signals through interference, busy networks in office buildings. I’m curious to see how this play works out, because from my vantage point, it seems as though we’re a long way from this technology working reliably and consistently.

In the meantime, relish in the glorious decadence of what it used to be like to plug stuff in…

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.