If Apple had its way, this week would play out like Christmas for 5-year-olds. First, unbelievable anticipation. Then, great surprise. At the end, immense satisfaction.
When the latest iPhone is unveiled Wednesday in a 7,000-seat auditorium, it probably will instead be more like Christmas for a sneaky 10-year-old who long ago peeked at his present. Thanks. That’s it?
Anyone who cares enough about the iPhone to know that a new model is being released this month already knows what it is supposed to be like: a little thinner, a little faster and equipped with superior cameras on the Plus model.
By far the most controversial feature, however, is the one that will be missing: a headphone jack. A standard element of technology that can be traced to 1878 and the invention of the manual telephone exchange, the jack is apparently going the way of the floppy disk and the folding map. The future will be wireless.
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We know about this potential absence thanks to a global information chain, one that shadows the supply and manufacturing chain that produces Apple’s products. The shadow chain is intended to ferret out Apple rumors: promoting them, discussing them and then discussing them some more, long before they become facts.
This rumor mill is both a gift to Apple and a burden, a sign that it has not lost its magic and a warning that everyone is on watch for the moment it does. No other company is tracked quite so relentlessly.
Under its co-founder Steve Jobs, Apple relished its ability to keep news under wraps and went to great lengths – legally and otherwise – to make sure it remained that way. “There is one more thing, and we’ve managed to keep it secret,” Jobs exulted in 1999 as he introduced iMacs in colors like blueberry and tangerine. “It’s hard to believe, but we did it.”
It was an ambition that his successor, Tim Cook, underlined at a conference four years ago. “We’re going to double down on secrecy on products,” he said.
Things have not quite worked out that way.
“When Steve Jobs was around, there was still that hope they could surprise you,” said Gene Munster, an Apple analyst. “Today, that hope is largely gone.”
The long road to unraveling this week’s surprises began in November, less than three months after the iPhone 6s had debuted to gangbuster first-weekend sales. The Japanese website Mac Otakara, considered a generally reliable source of information that has ties to the factories manufacturing the phone, wrote about Apple removing the jack in the next iPhone under the heading “rumor.”
For anyone not ready to go wireless, the story said, wired earphones would plug into the iPhone via Apple’s Lightning connector, which is typically used for charging power. Traditional headphones would presumably work through a converter.
This was big. “Headphones are one of the most basic functions, so this is something that’s going to affect users of all kinds,” said Eric Slivka, editor-in-chief of MacRumors.com. “I immediately knew it would be an extremely controversial topic all the way until launch.”
By early January, emotions were at a fever pitch. An online petition from SumofUs.org, which more than 300,000 people have signed, denounced Apple for creating more electronic waste – presumably, headphones that will no longer work with the iPhone and be thrown out.
Some commentators explained that even if people used adapters with their old headphones, they were gaining things, too. Other commentators noted that people complained that Apple never innovated anymore, and yet here it was innovating, and people were complaining anyway.
Then came the rumor that the headphone jack was not going away after all. The Chinese website Mydrivers.com published a photo of what it said were the innards of the new iPhone with the jack right there. “Has the rumor mill been lying to us?” wondered Cult of Mac. “Surely not!”
Two weeks ago, with the volume of commentary picking up as the big reveal approached, even Apple’s other co-founder, Steve Wozniak, weighed in. “If it’s missing the 3.5-millimeter earphone jack, that’s going to tick off a lot of people,” he told the Australian Financial Review. But he added a conciliatory note: “We'll see. Apple is good at moving toward the future, and I like to follow that.”
Perhaps it is better to be forewarned about what the future holds rather than be forced to confront it abruptly. “We soften the blow,” said Neil Hughes, managing editor of AppleInsider. “Can you imagine that if no one saw it coming and Apple just dropped this on Wednesday? People would lose their minds.”
Apple, which declined to comment for this article, most likely has a different view. In late 2004, it went after several websites, including AppleInsider, saying that when they posted details about unreleased products, they were publishing stolen property. At first Apple found success in court but the ruling was sharply reversed on appeal. It was ordered to pay $700,000 to cover the sites’ legal fees and generally looked like a bully.
For several years, Apple sold a T-shirt in its Cupertino, California, campus store that read, “I visited the Apple campus. But that’s all I am allowed to say.” A recent Apple presentation poked fun at its extensive security measures. But even if the company can now have a laugh or two at its own expense, its philosophy has not changed.
“Do you remember when you were a kid, and Christmas Eve, it was so exciting, you weren’t sure what was going to be downstairs?” Cook said when asked about the rumored Apple car at the annual shareholders’ meeting last February. “Well, it’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while.”