UPDATE (9/8/16): An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly suggested that no authorized audio devices or connectors that used the Lightning port existed prior to yesterday’s announcement. It also implied that the only way to achieve lossless sound quality on an iPhone was through a wired connection, which was also incorrect. We’ve edited the post accordingly.
With the recent iPhone 7 announcement, Apple confirmed what had already been widely speculated: that the new smartphone won’t have a traditional, analog headphone jack. Instead, the only ways to connect the phone to an external headset or speaker will be via Bluetooth, through the phone’s AirPlay feature, or through Apple’s proprietary Lightning port.
Apple’s motivations for abandoning the analog jack are opaque, but likely benign. Apple is obsessed with simple, clean design, and this move lets the company remove one more piece of clutter from the phone’s body. The decision may also have been a part of the move to a water-resistant iPhone. And certainly, many people choose a wireless listening experience.
But removing the port will change how a substantial portion of iPhone owners listen to audio content—namely, by simply plugging in a set of headphones. By switching from an analog signal to a digital one, Apple has potentially given itself more control than ever over what people can do with music or other audio content on an iPhone. We hope that Apple isn’t unwittingly opening the door to new pressures to take advantage of that power.
When you plug an audio cable into a smartphone, it just works. It doesn’t matter whether the headphones were made by the same manufacturer as the phone. It doesn’t even matter what you’re trying to do with the audio signal—it works whether the cable is going into a speaker, a mixing board, or a recording device.
The Lightning port works differently. Manufacturers must apply and pay a licensing fee to create a Lightning-compatible device. When rumors were circulating about an iPhone 7 with no headphone jack, our colleague Cory Doctorow predicted that big content companies would try to take advantage of that control: “Right now, an insistence on DRM would simply invite the people who wanted to bypass it for legal reasons to use that 3.5mm headphone jack to get at it. Once that jack is gone, there's no legal way to get around the DRM.”
In other words, if it’s impossible to connect a speaker or other audio device to an iPhone without Apple software governing it, then major media companies might pressure Apple to place limits on how Apple’s customers can use their content. Because U.S. law protects digital rights management (DRM) technologies, it may be illegal to circumvent any potential restrictions, even if you’re doing it for completely lawful purposes. There would certainly be a precedent: big content companies infamously pressured Apple to incorporate DRM in its iTunes service.
iTunes DRM is a thing of the past now—and fortunately, most DRM for audio downloads has gone with it. But some major media companies are still eager to find ways to control how we use their content. In the current debate over the FCC’s proposal to unlock TV set-top boxes, TV and film producers have insisted that they should be able to decide which devices can receive video. Can we believe the content industry will leave audio alone if outputs become entirely digital?
The good news is that the new iPhone will come with a Lightning dongle that will provide a standard 3.5 mm analog port. What’s not clear is whether iOS or specific apps will be able to disable the dongle—if so, history suggests that Hollywood and other major media industries will be eager to take advantage of that capability. It’s also unclear whether the iPhone’s software will be able to disable access to the 3.5 mm port for other third-party devices that use it, such as credit card terminals or blood pressure readers.
To its credit, Apple has been adamant it won’t use the new design to restrict your listening experience. But therein lies the problem: you shouldn’t have to depend on a manufacturer’s permission to use its hardware however you like (or, for that matter, to build your own peripherals and accessories for it). What you can do with your hardware should be determined by the limits of the technology itself, not its manufacturers’ policy decisions.
Ultimately, this story isn’t about Apple, or any other company’s design decisions. It’s about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s protection for DRM. Section 1201 of the DMCA makes it illegal to bypass DRM or give others the means of doing so. 1201 gives technology manufacturers the power to cast clouds of legal uncertainty over common uses of their products. It gives content owners and other powerful entities an unfair weapon against innovation by others. It’s a law that needs fixing.