This past September, Apple released new iPhone models without headphone jacks. The people were not pleased.
“It's eliminating a connector and adding inconvenience in the name of profit,” one commenter wrote. “Apple wants to see just how stupid the public really is,” said another. “There is absolutely no reason to get rid of a perfectly working universal headphone jack,” added a third.
As it turns out, there is a reason. The plug itself is small. But the corresponding receptacle on the inside of the phone is relatively enormous. By removing it, Apple says, it was able to fit in a bigger battery, giving the iPhone 7 two more hours of life per charge, a stabilized camera for fewer blurry photographs and stereo speakers.
Apple includes, in the box, both a new pair of earbuds (they plug into the phone's charging jack) and a two-inch adapter for existing headphones. But those wired approaches are meant to be stopgap measures until we all buy wireless headphones, which now cost as little as $17. (This year Bluetooth headphones overtook sales of wired ones for the first time.) Everything else is going wireless, Apple says, so why not our audio?
If you were an observer from Alpha Centauri, therefore, you might wonder what all the hullabaloo is about. Apple killed off a component popularized 52 years ago, offers two free ways to replace it and exploits the interior space with better features. What's the big deal?
If you were a human observer for the past 20 years, on the other hand, you might wonder about our short memory.
Apple's inclination to kill off “standard” components in the name of progress is no surprise. This, after all, was the company that famously eliminated floppy drives, CD-ROM drives and dial-up modems. And it got rid of physical keyboards on smartphones. It has discontinued a series of its own connectors, such as ADB, SCSI, FireWire and the original iPhone charging jack.
And every single time, the public is outraged. “The iMac is clean, elegant, floppy-free—and doomed,” went the Boston Globe's 1998 review. (The iMac quickly became the best-selling computer in the U.S.) But every single time, the computer industry's reaction is also the same: to follow suit. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and other companies dumped the floppy drives and dial-up modems from their standard PCs, too.
So the pattern is now clear: The tech companies (often led by Apple) change some way of doing something. The public screams bloody murder. Columnists do, too (I've been among them).
But a couple of years later we've all adopted the new technology and forgotten the old one. It's probably been years since you pined for the blistering speed of a dial-up modem and a decade since you wished you had a floppy drive.
Does that mean we're stupid and nearsighted? Not exactly. In the case of tech, there's a cost to each of these changes. There's a monetary cost, of course. By the time the industry abandoned the floppy-disk and CD-ROM standards, our collections of those disks were rendered worthless. And in the case of the disappearing headphone jack, there will be the cost of new wireless earbuds.
There's also a learning cost. Every time someone takes away a skill we've mastered and introduces one we haven't, that's a time-consuming challenge. There's even a convenience cost. During the transitional period to the new standard, we often have to buy and carry some bridge technology, such as external DVD drives, USB modems—or headphone-jack adapters.
Above all, though, there's a psychological cost to change, a helpless, primitive “Who moved my cheese?” reaction. As a species, we don't like lifestyle changes even if logic tells us that we should make them. (See also: climate change, diet, smoking.)
That's because, at its heart, change means leaping into the unknown. And the unknown—as our Neandertal ancestors approaching a dark cave could have told you—is frightening.
The big tech companies will always want to swat their public along into the future. In the end, resistance is futile—but it's also entirely understandable.