Tangled headphone wires were not a problem that needed to be solved for the good of mankind, but an opportunity to replace a fiercely competitive market.
Futurists hate wires: Wires can tangle. They are messy, inelegant, inefficient. To Silicon Valley’s technologists, they are the enemy. Everything that can be made wireless must be made wireless — wireless charging, wireless connectivity. Wires are ripe for disruption.
When Apple announced in 2016 that its new iPhone would not have a headphone port, there was widespread anger; no wonder Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller described that decision as an act of “courage.” The company wasn’t giving its customers the option to remove another wire from their life — it was forcing it down their throats.
Particularly galling was that customers who wanted to continue to use wired headphones in new Apple devices had to shell out for a special adapter (which, at least until 2018, Apple wouldn’t let third-party manufacturers make).
Most of the world’s major phone manufacturers followed suit the same year, despite the overwhelming evidence that consumers hated not being given the option to choose between wired and wireless headphones; some critics were baffled.
But the underlying reason is obvious to most watchers of Silicon Valley, who are used to its naked capitalistic impulses dressed in the gaudy language of idealistic progress: It’s all about the money, of course.
This was starkly illuminated by an industry analyst, Wedbush Securities’ Dan Ives, who told CBS in September that he is expecting Apple to sell 62 million sets of AirPods — their wireless headphones — in 2019, generating between $10 billion and $12 billion in sales. Of that, Ives predicted, 5-7 percent will be replacements for lost buds and cases, representing around $700 million in additional sales for Apple.
Wireless headphones sound like a more elegant solution than wires, though they look (let’s be honest here) pretty goofy. They also don’t work as well as wired sound: The signal can drop out, or get confused by other signals. Because the buds are tiny, and they’re not attached to each other or to you, they fall out or get lost easily. They can roll behind the couch; they can end up in the laundry. And they are expensive: Replacing one lost bud costs $69, or a pair costs $138.
This, for Apple, isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. Silicon Valley is in the business of creating near-monopolistic environments in which they can then push up the prices. Capitalists love to claim that markets are the best machine to find inefficiencies and drive progress, but the dirty secret is, and has been for centuries, that an open and competitive market is bad for the bottom line.
Wired headphones were working fine. An earphone port allowed you to attach any pair of headphones. Wired headphones were and are widely-available and cheap. There are alternative wireless headphones on the market — though only Apple’s own AirPods are able to instantly connect to an iPhone without fiddling — but no super-low-cost ones. And the alternative ones aren’t as good, either: The signal can be even more unreliable and they (currently) don’t have the bandwidth to handle the top ends of audio quality.
Moreover, as Vice wrote in May, while a good pair of wired headphones can last years and years if looked-after, AirPods — which are glued together and therefore cannot be repaired — only last about 18 months before their battery degrades. They are also terrible for the environment because, unlike wired headphones, AirPods contain lithium-ion batteries, which are dangerous to dispose of.
This is also no accident. Planned obsolescence — the practice by which technology companies design their products to degrade rather than building them to last, forcing consumers into the habit of continually buying new ones — has been a Silicon Valley scandal for years, but AirPods represent one of its most outrageous examples.
The mild inconvenience represented by tangled headphone wires was seen not as a human problem that needed to be solved for the good of mankind, but as a potential opportunity to replace a long-standing open and fiercely competitive market with a brand new closed and uncompetitive one, with all of the related commercial advantages that brings.
Pushing people from a freely competitive market into a system it controlled allowed Apple to use its cradle-to-grave relationship with its consumers to create and immediately dominate a brand-new product area almost from scratch.
If, as Apple’s Schiller said at the time, removing the headphone jack took “courage”, it was the sort of courage that vastly increased profit-sharing and created a brand new near-monopoly, but which was such an utterly shameless exercise in screwing the customer that it risked triggering a consumer revolt.
You could call that courage, I guess — but it seems more like pure chutzpah to me.
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