Bringing the Lightning

A last-minute prediction for the iPhone 7.

As usual, the hardware specs for the upcoming iPhones have been well leaked while the software surprises are subject to a lot more speculation. The iPhone Plus has dual cameras, but to what end? Super-resolution? Hardware-supported zoom? Synthetic aperture control (‘bokeh on demand’)? The event invitation would seem to allude to the latter, though the three aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

But I’m here to talk about the bigger elephant in the room: Headphones. Sure, Apple has a reputation for removing ports and drives from their devices before the public thinks it’s time to, but the 3.5mm headphone jack’s lineage and pervasiveness far exceed either the floppy drive or the optical drive, and people are having a hard time swallowing this pill. But within a few years this will be seen as a natural and obvious move.

Bluetooth, maligned early on for sub-par connectivity and audio quality, has come a very long way, and within a few years wired headphones will be seen as much an outlier as a wired mouse or trackpad. It’s Apple’s style to predict and support this transition at the hardware level by taking away the safety net of a headphone plug that hasn’t changed fundamentally since the ¼" jack was introduced 138 years ago. Nobody alive today has ever known a world without this plug.

To put it bluntly, headphones that plug into the 3.5mm jack are dumb. Literally. At the base level, they’re just wires conducting current to tiny speaker coils, without electronics at all. Sure, some are smarter with inline controls or analog signal processing such as bass boosting or noise cancellation, but most headphones are just dumb wires. And we know how Apple feels about wires, even if they’re pretty smart.

So what advantages do Lightning-based headphones offer? At least three things:

Lossless digital sound: When the digital-to-analog processing happens in the headphones the output can be precisely tuned for the speakers they’ll be playing on, with any adjustments being applied without having to translate an analog signal back to digital and back again to analog, or being limited to analog circuitry throughout. Bottom-of-the-line headphones will get a little more expensive when an Apple-certified Lightning plug has to be used, but those plugs, just like the inevitable Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter, will have a digital-to-analog chip incorporated in it, so beyond that point the hardware doesn’t have to change at all. More advanced headphones have so much profit margin built in to the price that they’ll be happy to differentiate themselves with a Lightning-ready set of cans. The upshot is equivalent sound for dumb headphones and superior sound for smarter headphones. And that’s not even counting the advantages to 5.1 channel-capable headphones.

Phone-enabled noise cancellation: Along with digital audio out channels come digital- audio in channels. A pair of headphones with external microphones can give the iPhone all the data it needs to do realtime noise cancellation on the phone, giving the headphones just the signal they need to provide the same noise cancellation as premium headsets. Quality noise cancellation can easily add $200 to the price of a headset, but users would get the feature for free, since the headsets (or earbuds) wouldn’t need the robust on-ear computation that current noise-cancelling headphones require. By the way, this is a feature that couldn’t be accomplished over Bluetooth, since the latency, however small, is far too long to make the roundtrip in less time that sound takes to get from the outside of the headset to your ear. One other upside to on-phone noise cancellation is that the headphones wouldn’t run out of batteries, as they would need almost no power, and that would be provided by the phone. Which brings me to…

Power: The Lightning port is designed to both accept power (for charging the phone) and supply power (Apples Pencil is a good example of something charged from the iOS device). This is important because Apple’s strategy to transition from wired headphones to wireless isn’t just embodied by a move from the 3.5” port to Bluetooth, but also in new EarPods that can work as Lightning earphones while charging and then automatically transition to Bluetooth when the cord is unplugged from the earbuds. The clunky Bluetooth pairing process would be replaced by the ‘pair by wire’ process that the Apple Keyboard, Magic Trackpad and Pencil all use, automatically pairing when the device is plugged in for charging and continuing to work seamlessly when unplugged.

There are a few remaining questions:

How much of the new stuff will work with current iOS devices? I think most of it. Apple has been pushing their support of Lightning headphones for over a year, paving the way for their forcing of the issue with new hardware, and not much if any of the functionality I described above should require new hardware. It’ll probably be baked into the OS, even if it’s been obscured in the betas thus far.

What will come in the box? This is where things get tricky. Apple has to ensure people can listen to music right out of the box, which would either mean Lightning EarPods or an adapter or both. A 3.5mm adapter alone is unthinkable. It would be a sign of failure, providing a step backwards in the user experience with none of the new functionality Lightning would provide. On the other end of the scale, the Lightning+Wireless EarPods I described would be unlikely by default as it would add too much to the build cost of the iPhone, and severely cut the upsell opportunity to other Beats wireless headsets.

My guess is Lightning wired-only EarPods that take advantage of the noise-cancellation functionality, which would already make them much cooler and more useful than current EarPods. It might also be possible that they would bundle these outside the box to enable an upsell ($49-99) to ‘AirPods’ (wireless Lightning EarPods) instead of the basic wired version.

But what about iPads? Same thing. If they’re getting rid of the headphone jack in favor of Lightning, they’re getting rid of the headphone jack across iOS.

MacBooks? Now things get interesting. Will Apple transition MacBooks away from 3.5mm? They have to. There’s no way they’ll expect someone to have Lightning headphones that they have to use an adapter (whether 3.5mm or USB-c) when plugging in to their Mac. No, the only way I can see this going is bringing the Lightning port to the Mac.

I know that breaks all the walls between iOS and macOS but it’s the only way, and there are big advantages, beyond all those that apply to the iPhone. There are a slew of adapters (HDMI, SD-card, etc.) for Lightning that can be just as useful on a Mac. It’s a shame we’ve had to double-up on Lightning and Thunderbolt (think about that one for a second) adapters to cover our Macs and our iPads and iPhones. USB is becoming the new Thunderbolt (which was the new FireWire which was the new SCSI), and Lightning becomes the new USB (which was the new ADB which was the new Serial). A Lightning-Lightning cable wouldn’t be an unthinkable thing either.

Well that’s my take. I have this bad habit of writing predictive posts with really short shelf-lives and most of this post will be completely outdated by Wednesday afternoon, but if you find it interesting, please share it early and often before the announcement, and as always, Happy iPhone Day.


Now read this

Statistics, probability, and Nate Silver

In the last few days Nate Silver has become the third most talked-about man in politics, with pundits left and right saying he’s audaciously staked his professional reputation on an Obama win. This is sad and shows how little we... Continue →