What happens when Apple removes headphone jacks and USB ports from our devices

When there is no transition period, frustrations arise.

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I climbed into my son’s car the other day, an older Saab with a fairly decent sound system. I had an iPhone 7 Plus in my pocket, but I didn't bother fishing it out. I know the phone comes with a Lightning port adapter that lets you use a standard 3.5mm cable to connect up to a car stereo. The adapter is about the size of a walnut, but I normally connect up to my car using Bluetooth and don’t carry the adapter with me. It was a “gotcha” because we really wanted to listen to the new Wilco album.

These “gotchas” are annoying when it comes to technology, which is supposed to enable us and not make things totally unusable. Rumors are flying this week that a new MacBook Pro won’t come with normal USB ports, but we’ve already crossed this threshold. The HP Spectre only has USB-C ports, the smaller ones used for data transfer and power. HP includes an adapter (a cable that's about four inches long) so you can use older USB devices. I’m pretty sure I’ve already misplaced it.

What happens when we move from one incredibly common technology to a newer one that is no longer compatible? Terrible things. Sudden annoyances. Frustrations. When I wrote about the iPhone 7 and how it doesn’t use a normal 3.5mm headphone jack anymore, dozens of people commented on Twitter and by email about how annoying that is. Older devices like headphones and speakers won’t work anymore without the adapter, which is easy to lose. Worse, there’s an issue with quality. Many Bluetooth earbuds sound like an AM radio under water. You can always upgrade to premium-grade headphones, but what if you don’t want to spend the cash?

With USB-C, the problem is much more annoying. There are hundreds of thousands of USB devices on the market. In my office alone, I count at least two dozen -- printers, headsets, a smarthome device, a mouse. Every single one of these devices worked perfectly fine before. Now, I need to use an adapter with laptops that only offer USB-C. When I travel, who knows? If I want to connect to a printer in a remote office, I can likely use Wi-Fi, unless the printer doesn’t offer that.

This isn’t an article about the good old days, though. It’s a problem when there’s a transition for reasons other than actual consumer benefit. Maybe HP and Apple want to make thinner and lighter laptops. Maybe there’s more room now for the battery in an iPhone 7. Fine. But the industry hasn’t caught up. Most earbuds and headphones still sound terrible when they stream Bluetooth audio, and many older cars still provide only an analog input. Most printers provide only a standard USB cable. We need to move on from USB and 3.5mm jacks, but maybe there’s a better way to do that.

On a laptop, it makes more sense to add a couple of USB-C ports but keep at least one standard USB port around. Or, maybe the USB-C can use an adapter that fits over the port and stays there, not a cable like the one that’s included with the Spectre. With the iPhone, I was surprised when I found out that Apple isn’t ready to release the new AirPods (they came out later this month). So, that means the iPhone 7 offers half of the answer when it comes to music streaming. (They do include earbuds that connect directly to the Lightning port, but it’s useless with any other device.)

What consumers want is a bridge, a transition period where we can use the gadgets we already own and like and transition into the brave new world. That’s never quite what the tech companies want, though.

My advice: It’s time to figure out how to make new tech work with the old.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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