Only Apple could get away with killing the headphone jack

Unless every rumor-mongerer and Apple reporter on the planet has made the same simultaneous error, later today Apple will unveil the design of a new iPhone that doesn't have an analog headphone jack. Users will need to either buy wireless headphones or plug a pair of headphones (or an adapter) into the Lightning port that also charges the phone. This idea has been percolating around in the technology press for a long time, but it seems so bizarre and wrongheaded to normal people that they think they must have misheard me when I tell them it's going to happen.

After all, as the Verge's Nilay Patel put it "no one is asking for this."

And he's right. If you survey Android users about what it would take to get them to switch to iPhone, none of them would say "I want an iPhone without a headphone jack." And if you survey iPhone users about what would tempt them to upgrade, none of them would say they want an iPhone without a headphone jack either. People want more battery life. Or a faster processor. Or a better camera. Or more waterproofing. Or less breakability. Or something. But not the removal of the headphone jack. Nobody wants that.

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Personally, I don't particularly want it either. But to understand Apple's success over the years, you have to understand that nobody was asking for a teardrop-shaped laptop before the release of the MacBook Air. Nor was anybody saying that the big problem with BlackBerry's smartphones was that they had a physical keyboard.

You don't ship great products by doing surveys and giving people want they want. You ship great products by coming up with ideas that are better than what people think they want. Apple has been successful over the years in part because their integrated business model makes them uniquely capable of taking this kind of big crazy risk.

Apple's big advantage: new iPhone sales are guaranteed

Apple has an advantage that nobody else in the industry does: They know that if they make a new iPhone, a whole bunch of people will buy it. What Apple wants, of course, is a hit product. They want sales to go up rather than down, and they'd like to see sales go up a lot rather than up a little. But they have the luxury of knowing that the absolute number of units sold is going to be enormous — even if for one reason or another people don't love the product as much as earlier iterations.

That's in part because Apple has a loyal customer base (fanboys, reality distortion field, etc.) but it's more fundamentally because only Apple makes iOS devices. If Apple releases several years' worth of disappointing iPhones in a row, their market share will decline and the company will collapse. But in the short-term, the company is basically disaster-proof because switching away from iOS to Android is enough of a hassle that people won't do it en masse over one bad iPhone update.

The makers of Android smartphones don't have this luxury. Even a very mild dissatisfaction with a new Samsung product could cause a cataclysmic loss of market share to HTC or LG or vice versa.

Security lets Apple take risks

The practical upshot of Apple's short-term guarantee of sales is that they have the luxury of thinking more about the long-term future of their product line.

Competition among Android smartphone makers creates a collective action problem. Anyone who drops a feature of any kind will immediately fall behind the competition in terms of feature lists and lose sales. This means the progress of the platform is essentially limited by consumers' current view of what they want. Apple, by contrast, canforce consumers to change their behavior and adopt a new paradigm.

On the PC side, that's why it was Apple that led the way in terms of dropping CD drives,VGA ports, and Ethernet jacks in favor of smaller, lighter machines.

Apple's judgment about such matters hasn't been flawless — neither the FireWire nor the Thunderbolt standards that Apple has pushed over the years have proved all that successful — but they do have the strategic opportunity to try to exercise their best judgment about what people will like best, while competitors are limited to consumers' current judgment and natural conservatism about technology.

Steve Jobs used to discuss this in terms of a hockey metaphor. Apple would skate to where the puck is going. Competitive pressures force other smartphone makers to skate to where the puck is right now, which means that they're always a step behind.

In this case, Apple is betting that reducing the number of holes in the phone will let them build smaller, more robust, more waterproof devices and people won't miss their old earphones much once they're used to going wireless.

Steve Jobs is dead

That, however, merely returns the conversation to the central doubt investors and analysts have raised about Apple over the past several years: Steve Jobs is dead.

Jobs was never all there was to Apple — far from it. But having a unique ability to push platforms forward in ways that consumers don't even know they want hinges crucially on whether your product people can, in fact, come up with things that consumers don't even know they want. Jobs's product vision sometimes faltered — people turned out not to want a perfectly round mouse or a desktop computer that looked like a Kleenex box — but he had enough big wins to more than compensate for the losses.

Apple's unique strength is that from top to bottom it was — and remains — the kind of company where visionary product thinking can succeed. An equally brilliant product guy embedded in a company with a very different overall structure and business model would have simply failed. But Apple's structural openness to bold visions didn't — and doesn't — guarantee success. The visions need to make sense.

The new iPhone is a huge test for Apple

In this sense, the removal of the headphone jack is a crucial test for Apple.

The post-Jobs trajectory of Apple has given fodder for both sides of the argument over the company's dependence on its founder. On the one hand, they have in fact come out with some pretty exciting and innovative new products. On the other hand, those products haven't been iPhone-scale hits. But back on the first hand, no other product in human history has been an iPhone-scale hit.

Messing in a fundamental way with the iPhone itself provides a much clearer test. Not so much in terms of how this new iPhone sells, but in terms of how many people buy the iPhone after this one. Apple is unique in its ability to make people go try something that sounds crazy and new. If customers still hate it in a couple of years, it will show that Apple is deeply vulnerable. It will mean that Apple not only lacks a Jobs-like innovator, it lacks the ability to recognize that it has lost its Jobs-like innovator and needs to switch to a more conventional approach.

But if people do end up liking a product that it sure seems like people would hate, it will be the best proof possible that Apple still has the old magic.