How the iPhone 7 might affect Apple’s user experience

BBC news has confirmed long-suspected rumours of the removal of the 3.5mm audio port from the iPhone 7, representing the continuation of Apple’s history of dumping technologies and standards it deems obsolete.

The last major change of this sort was when Apple replaced the 30-pin accessory and changing connector with the Lightning port back in 2012.  Some commentators are suggesting that this transition will be similar for users; a few weeks of grumbling followed by acceptance, however there are significant differences with this move to Lightning wired audio.

Firstly, the Lightning port is a superior design to the old, clunky 30 pin connectors that were easily broken. After using a streamlined Lightning cable for a few days, users could easily see the benefits over the original design. Transitioning from 30-pin to Lightning  was also relatively painless and unless a customer owned a dedicated dock, it was usually as simple as buying a couple of new cables to work with existing wall warts and accessories.

But most importantly, the experience of changing is much different to the experienceof audio in the context of the smartphone. Charging either works or it doesn’t and while we get very annoyed when something goes wrong, we’re not particularly excited when we get a full battery.

The experience of music is entirely different. Music is intensely personal and for a large proportion of customers, the smartphone is their primary music device. Any commuter will be familiar with sight of fellow travellers shutting out the world with high end (read expensive) headphones. The transition from 3.5mm to Lightning audio risks alienating these users. While the 3.5mm standard has been around since the 60’s, there’s nothing wrong with it.

The 30-pin cable was an Apple design and in many respects, Apple’s to change. It’s almost inconceivable that other manufacturers will stop using 3.5mm jacks simply because the iPhone 7 no longer uses it. So now we have another standard for audio jacks.

And yes, I understand that wireless audio is increasingly prevalent, however users tend to purchase these headsets for convenience, not audio quality. Strangely enough, Apple purchased a leading headphone brand (Beats) a few years ago for $3 Billion, acknowledging the importance of music consumption both for its customers are its future revenue. One of the reasons why the Beats brand was attractive to Apple was for the quality of its headphones. In light of this acquisition, the latest design decision just seems odd.

Unless there is a significant benefit to the quality of sound  with the Lightning connector (which is doubtful), there’s a real risk that users will view the move as either a cynical example of Apple changing a standard to drive sales,  or as simple design arrogance. An adapter can be purchased, presumably for a nominal cost, however the very act of using an adapter defeats the principles of seamless design that Apple has been famous for.

It’s hard to see what the benefits for users will be, and Apple risks damaging the perception and experience of its brand by forcing Lightning audio on its customers.

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