Hello, world. I’m MacDara Conroy, and this is my blog.

Thinking out loud about Apple and headphones

Rumour has it that Apple’s next iteration of the iPhone (and likely other iOS devices) will come with a proprietary headphone jack. It’s move being widely scorned online, and rightly so. But rather than anger at Apple for what looks on the surface to be yet another cash-grab (as if a company with literally billions in cash reserves needs to suck even more money out of the global economy), the more I think about it, the more I feel pity for an institution that’s clearly flailing and failing to keep up with things.

Now first of all, it has to be acknowledged that ‘Apple’ and ‘proprietary’ have gone hand-in-hand forever; they’ve always had their own chargers and cables and whatnot. So there is a precedent for it, this is nothing new. But I think this particular move, if confirmed, strikes a more resonant chord because it does two things. It crosses an invisible line that didn’t need to be crossed for any worthwhile practical reasons (the 3.5mm headphone jack has been a universal standard since the 1950s at least, and it’s already been ‘disrupted’ by Bluetooth) and it comes at a time when Apple the brand has become so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible in the marketplace, cueing what appears to be a desperation move for headlines (no such thing as bad news, as the philosophy goes).

Once the dogged underdog, Apple achieved exactly what they set out to achieve a long time ago: to become the most desired brand not just in computing, but in personal entertainment. There was a peak a few years ago when iPhones and their shitty pre-packed earbuds were fucking everywhere. And that’s worth emphasising — it was a peak. And it’s been downhill from there. The cool factor has worn off. When everyone’s got something with that Apple logo, no one cares anymore. I’d wager that most people who bought into the brand with an iPhone or an iPad a few years ago are either happy with what they’ve got and don’t feel like upgrading to the next thing, or they’ve grown bored and don’t use their devices anymore. Such is the natural progression of mainstream fads.

Meanwhile, small hints that Apple were forgetting their previous reputation for being the reliable alternative in favour of what, I don’t know — greater cultural caché, perhaps? — were becoming noticeable beyond the hardcore ‘power user’ base. Forget the disappointment that was Final Cut X; how about the increasing frustration of using iTunes? How about the clusterfuck that’s been iCloud? Does iMessage work reliably for anyone? Can anyone find what they want in the App Store without scrolling through lists of shit? Their worship of cool — gold and ‘champagne’ iPhones for people who think the internet is Snapchat and Facebook — has been at the expense of, you know, actually using the damn things.

And that’s the thing. When Apple broke with custom and released a ‘phablet’ version of the iPhone, seemingly in complete contradiction of Steve Jobs’ specific ideas about screen size, and in general his vision for minimalism in terms of both design and range for his product line, it was the first significant gesture that the company was starting to chase the market, rather than have the market come to them as it had done ever since those semi-translucent iMacs started popping up on every TV show in the late 1990s.

That the company went on to acquire the Beats headphones brand only reinforced that notion. Beats were impossibly cool, indeed they were 2014’s must-have Christmas present despite their middling reputation for quality and their laughably expensive price tags. Maybe Apple saw something in that, being a company that’s essentially charged the same numerical value for its computers for 15 years while their PC equivalents are a third of what they were.

Note that I said Beats were impossibly cool. Maybe they’re still the go-to cans among the kids today, whoever they might be, but they certainly weren’t a thing this past Christmas. In mainstream terms, the brand’s a dead duck.

I can only presume, in the minds of Apple’s brain trust, that their potential move to a proprietary headphone jack is nbd since people love Beats, right? And all the new Beats will come with the new jacks, and it goes both ways, yeah? If you have an Apple product, you’ll get Beats to use with it, because sure why would you want anything else? And if you want a kick-ass set of Beats, you can get an iPhone or iPad to go with them, because sure what else would you be using to stream from Apple Music? Sure most people find it terrible to use, but there’s a three-month free trial! Spotify? What’s that?

And yet, I walk the streets of this country, I ride the trams and trains and sit on the buses, and I don’t see everyone using iPhones or iPads. I see just as many of not more using Samsung smartphones and phablets and tablets. I see them listening to music or podcasts or whatever on all manner of headphones, from Beats to Sennheisers to Skullcandy and anything in between. I still see MacBooks in coffee shops, but just as many Chromebooks or other laptops.

Apple achieved the ubiquity they desired, but they got the public wrong. The iPod all but killed the MP3 player market because Apple made the best ones. That makes sense. Apple applied the same logic to smartphones but it didn’t have the same results. The iPhone made touchscreens desirable, but now they’re desirable in and of themselves, regardless of the logo. Same for the iPad. People might use the names, much in the way that every vacuum cleaner is a Hoover, but the brand is a secondary consideration if it’s even a consideration at all.

Cost, I feel, is more important, especially in these recessionary times. (And these are still recessionary times, in real on-the-ground terms, but that’s a topic for another day.) Apple recoils from the notion of lowering its sticker prices for fear of tarnishing their elite brand (despite pandering to the mass market) as if anyone beyond their shareholders actually gives a shit. It wasn’t even a competition when we bought our tablet a year ago: the Nexus 7 was literally half the price of the closest comparable iPad. I can’t imagine that’s any different for most people.

So Apple can go ahead and change their headphone jacks if that’s what they’re doing. And they can watch third-party suppliers (who already market perfectly usable Lightning connectors at a fraction of Apple’s prices) sell their own adapters (licensed from Apple, so they’ll get a cut anyway) so we can keep on using our favourite headphones if we choose to upgrade to the next iPhone or iPad on our contracts, or we’ll simply judge the whole thing a pain in the ass and switch to an Android device, nbd. And Cupertino can keep on chasing that which they cannot have anymore, because they didn’t know what do with it when they had it.