The next iPhone won’t have a headphone jack, if the leaks and rumors are true.
Some say: Good! The 3.5mm audio jack system is literally Victorian-era technology, a small version of the 6.35mm jack invented in 1878 for telephone operators. Removing the jack would make iPhones slimmer, simpler and more waterproof.
Others say: Bad! Killing the audio jack harms users, making decades of earbuds, headphones and other devices unusable without a klunky converter dongle. Plus, switching from analog headphone jacks to digital audio could lead to stricter DRM (digital rights management) and theoretically empower Apple to block unauthorized headphones.
Without the 3.5mm audio jack, iPhones will probably ship with either wireless, Bluetooth-connected earbuds (the company has trademarked “Airpods” via a shell company) or iPhones will come with earbuds that use the Lightning port. Or maybe both.
Apple wouldn’t be the first mover. Motorola’s flagship Moto Z phone has no headphone jack. Some small Chinese companies are also getting rid of it. But when Apple ditches the jack, you can bet the rest of the industry will follow.
While we tech journalists bicker over audio jacks, something truly important is happening: Our smartphone user interfaces (UI) are becoming distributed and invisible. These trends will make the smartphone itself obsolete.
Just look at what’s happening to earbuds.
The earbud revolution
A company called Doppler Labs last week announced a new product called the Here One. (I first told you about Doppler Labs in this space last year.)
Doppler calls the Here One “the world’s first in-ear computing platform,” technologically closer to the iPhone than to the iPhone earbuds.
Like your existing earbuds, Here One earbuds play music and podcasts from your smartphone, and let you make and take calls.
But unlike your regular earbuds, Here One buds contain special audio processing technology in the form of multiple multicore processors and several microphones. They are controlled with a smartphone app.
While your current earbuds aren’t much more sophisticated than two cans connected by a string, Here One earbuds are more powerful than your PC was a few years ago.
You can use the app to customize what you hear. You can turn off the sound of a baby crying — you’ll hear everything except the baby. If you’re in a noisy restaurant and trying to have a conversation, you can turn off the noise of background chatter. You can listen to music without blocking the sounds around you, or you can hear both at the same time, if you want to.
These advanced audio tricks require high-performance processing, which takes place in the earbuds. For example, any sounds in the environment are “recorded,” processed, then replayed either with or without modification, and this has to happen so fast that you can’t detect the delay.
Doppler claims that its adaptive filtering technology doesn’t just blindly remove specific frequencies, but instead listens to sounds in the environment, identifies the offending noise, then filters it out based on what it’s “hearing.” One implication of that is that if, say, a baby is crying to your left, and if you choose to filter out the crying, the filtering will be different in left and right earbuds to optimize the noise cancellation.
Here One earbuds are promised for delivery by the end of November and can be pre-ordered now for $299.
Doppler Labs’ Here One technology is one part of the earbud revolution.
Consider the $299 Bragi Dash earbud product. These earbuds are wireless and sync up with each other using near-field magnetic induction (NFMI) technology.
Bragi Dash earbuds are packed with potential. Each earbud contains 23 sensors, which will eventually be able to track heart rate, environmental factors and more. They have different controls on the left and right earbud, where you can control music and volume and also scroll through fitness options, such as starting and stopping the tracking feature for running. As you scroll through the options, a voice in your earbuds reads out the options and provides spoken feedback.
There’s intelligence to them as well. For example, you don’t turn them on. Simply putting them in your ears starts them up and connects them to your phone (after you’ve done an initial pairing) — the earbuds recognize the movement of shoving earbuds into your ears and turn themselves on.
Like the Here One, the Bragi Dash devices let you separately control the volume of music and ambient noise. By turning off music and turning up ambient noise (called Transparency mode), you get super hearing.
The Here One and the Bragi Dash represent the future of earbuds — loaded with intelligence, processing power and the ability to custom-tailor what you hear and what you don’t.
So what does this have to do with the future of smartphones, you ask?
Where we’re headed: The distributed smartphone interface
As great as these next-generation earbuds might seem to be, critics complain about them. We’re told they’re too expensive, that wireless devices are a hassle to charge and that Bluetooth earbuds and headphones can be less reliable than cabled versions.
All this naysaying reminds me of the widespread grousing about the usefulness and functionality of smartwatches and other wearables.
Google Glass was destroyed in the court of public opinion, with journalists saying that the beta prototype was awkward and dorky — a Segway for your face.
The consensus is that wearables are a huge disappointment.
But wearables are useful only as replacements either for the smartphone user interface or the smartphone itself. If I can look at the display on my smartwatch instead of my phone, then the smartwatch is doing its job. If I still need to directly use my phone all the time, then what’s the point of the watch?
Change is already happening. Bit by bit, our smartphone user interface will be replaced by wearables. For example, earbuds like the Doppler Labs’ Here One are so good for constant use that (once future versions can last all day on a charge), you’ll always wear them. And if you always wear earbuds, the speakers on your phone are unnecessary.
With the rise of virtual assistants and bots, we’ll increasingly talk to our smartphones through wearables instead of poking at their screens. Notifications and updates will be spoken to us through our wireless earbuds. Haptics will nudge and inform us with increasingly sophisticated vibrations. The electronics now used in smartglasses will vanish inside ordinary looking glasses and sunglasses, and we’ll use them to take photos and videos with a tap or swipe to see high-resolution mixed- and augmented-reality images.
Doppler Labs’ Here One earbuds are a great example of the future of all wearables: They’re so good they make a smartphone component obsolete.
Mixed- and augmented-reality smartglasses will eventually do something similar. They’ll eventually be so compelling to use that we’ll prefer the visuals beamed directly into our eyes to the screens on our phones.
Future earbuds and smartglasses working together, along with additional haptic and visual input from our smartwatches, will create a total experience that will be far beyond anything the smartphone by itself could produce.
Ultimately, we’ll opt for smaller smartphones that we almost never remove from our pockets, purses and backpacks. And then one day all the electronics normally built into a smartphone will fit into a smartwatch and we’ll be done with smartphones forever.
This vision of mobile “personal computing” will be intensely personal. Nobody around us will hear our virtual assistants talking to us, feel the haptics or see the visual information poured directly into our eyes from our smartglasses. Wearables will work together to give us an invisible user interface.
Ultimately, this vision of using multiple wearables as the main or sole interface to our smartphones — and eventually as an alternative to smartphones — will make us feel like we, ourselves, are the computer. That may sound unappealing today, but we’ll be thrilled by the experience.
Ultimately, Apple’s audio jack isn’t all that important. The world of smartphone audio is about to radically change how we use smartphones. Eventually, the future of smarter wearables will end the need for smartphones altogether.