Back on May 28th, electronics giant Apple announced they would be acquiring Beats Music, a subscription based streaming music service, and Beats Electronics, makers of the fashionable headphones that have taken the market by storm. The price: a mere 3 billion dollars. So what would Apple want with Beats? Certainly the companies have some common ground, with Beats cofounder Jimmy Iovine perhaps going a bit over the top stating “I’ve always known in my heart that Beats belonged with Apple.”
There isn’t much question in our minds that the companies should mesh well together. However, it appears the recent purchase announcement wasn’t the only thing Apple had up their sleeves. During Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last week, they also revealed a new connection standard for headphones utilizing the Lightning connector currently seen on their mobile devices for charging and data transmission. And now in our cynical minds, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together…
To be sure, Apple has big ideas for this switch. As a 21st century reinterpretation of the headphone jack, the Lightning connector would provide bidirectional communication in the digital domain as well as an analog signal, not to mention enough power for features like noise cancelling hardware without the need for batteries. The digital communication has the potential to be a significant advance in a couple ways. Feeding the headphones a stereo digital signal at sample rates up to 48kHz could enhance sound quality, assuming of course the headphones come with a built in DAC and amplification. Moreover, digital communication would enable superior control on both ends of the equation: app control of headphone features would be possible, while headphone controls could become more advanced. Last but not least, the new standard would allow Apple to eliminate the 3.5mm headphone jack from their products, allowing them to reclaim internal space for a larger battery.
For those that have followed Apple’s history, this move probably isn’t a huge surprise. Apple has been infamous for their “walled garden” approach, which has its proponents and detractors. On one hand, the walled garden allows Apple to vet hardware and software, allowing them a degree of quality control over the end users experience; this was critical to their old “it just works” slogan. On the other hand, the garden allows Apple to dictate what is available to users, something many people aren’t fond of.
What’s our take on these dual announcements? Let’s just say we’re cautiously pessimistic. Far be it from us to pooh-pooh innovation. At the same time, we’re hoping Apple continues to offer consumers choice, and doesn’t eliminate the 3.5mm jack going forward. We’re not holding our breath though, which means every headphone currently on the market (including those owned by the Apple users) will be incompatible with future Apple products. On the upside, it’s unlikely that Apple’s super good friends at Samsung (the #2 smartphone maker) would sign on to the new standard (if only out of spite), meaning owners of high end headphones shouldn’t be totally hosed.