Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mini phone plug, it's not you, it's me

Last Wednesday morning I got an email:
"Everyone seems to agree the 7 will come without a headphone jack, which renders it useless for a large segment of the population including me. No interest in heavy or expensive bluetooth ear buds; they are crappy for the gym or running. Nor am I interested in buds that use Apple's proprietary connectors." 
Renders it useless? How!? It will stop functioning as a radio with a computer and a damn good camera inside it? It has speakers in it. What do headphones even have to do with anything? But I put aside those ranty thoughts and responded as a former electronics engineer who developed products that had mini phone jacks. That connector is a disaster. First of all it's terrible for making your speakers pop if you plug it in hot. The one on my Mac mini that connects my computer to the amplifier crackles when I wiggle it. I cringe to think what is happening inside the computer when that happens. As a component it's completely out of scale with electronics today. When you stick a 1/2" long by 1/8" wide metal rod into a right angle connector on a circuit board it must subject the solder joints to a lot of torque. Although it's probably glued in there, another irritating manufacturing step. A mini phone jack is just not in keeping with the rest of the product to me. It's as out of place as a cast iron pitcher pump in a modern kitchen. So I responded to the email thus:
"Yes, today is the day. I have an alarm set to tune in to the live stream of the event.
I'm perfectly ok with them getting rid of an audio connector that was invented for women to poke either ends of a jumper into holes in a panel to connect two telephone sets. Limiting the advance of $800 worth of today's technology because people want to be able to plug in their $10 worth of last century's technology is obviously illogical.
Eliminating that connector allows them to easily implement waterproofing. And reduce the size and weight. I think a dongle to let you connect your old wired headphones is a perfectly acceptable compromise to have a phone that won't be damaged if you get caught in a rain storm."

Then I watched the live stream on my iPad. I laughed when this happened.

Right after that is when Apple Senior VP Phil Schiller said losing the analog jack is about "the courage to move on, do something new, that betters all of us." Well, I thought it was dumb when he said it. Betters all of us? Really? It betters the iPhone. Own up to who it helps. And what's so courageous about common sense? Then I watched dumbfounded as the vitriol boiled online from people who act like they didn't live through the death of floppy drives, the transition from analog to digital television broadcasts, phasing out high power incandescent lightbulbs, and every other advance of technology. I see what he means now. Courageous because he expected people to be furious at him. I feel bad for him now.

I am a hermit so I don't communicate with many people directly. One of them weighed in early that losing that jack was a deal breaker and that surprised me. I was relieved when the second person I typed to that day was on my side. Good riddance, he said. Let's move on. But then the third person I communicated with was also mad about it and thought it was a terrible idea. And all over my Twitter feed men were raging. (I will note that so far I have not seen a woman complain about this. I don't count this as significant because I haven't got any data on the diversity of my sample.) I got more and more puzzled. I started to question why I thought it was a good idea. I assumed anybody with an audio electronics background would automatically come to the same conclusion I did without even requiring research. But then I questioned that too. I decided I should ask my acoustics professor what he thought. But first I looked up the specs on the lightning port so I could share with him what is going to be used instead. There's a lot about it I didn't know. From the iPhone wiki: (Bold faced by me)
  • Lightning is adaptive.
  • All 8 pins are used for signals, and all or most can be switched to be used for power.
  • The outer plug shell is used as ground reference and connected to the device shell.
  • At least one (probably at most two) of the pins is used for detecting what sort of plug is plugged in.
  • All plugs have to contain a controller/driver chip to implement the “adaptive” thing.
  • The device watches for a momentary short on all pins (by the leading edge of the plug) to detect plug insertion/removal.
  • The pins on the plug are deactivated until after the plug is fully inserted, when a wake-up signal on one of the pins cues the chip inside the plug. This avoids any shorting hazard while the plug isn’t inside the connector.
  • The controller/driver chip tells the device what type it is, and for cases like the Lightning-to-USB cable whether a charger (that sends power) or a device (that needs power) is on the other end.
  • The device can then switch the other pins between the SoC’s data lines or the power circuitry, as needed in each case.
  • Once everything is properly set up, the controller/driver chip gets digital signals from the SoC and converts them – via serial/parallel, ADC/DAC, differential drivers or whatever – to whatever is needed by the interface on the other end of the adapter or cable. It could even re-encode these signals to some other format to use fewer wires, gain noise-immunity or whatever, and re-decode them on the other end; it’s all flexible. It could even convert to optical.
This is pretty neat stuff. Of course it's also proprietary and you have to pay Apple a fee to make stuff that use that connector. People that are unhappy with that, but I say welcome to a capitalist society. If you change the laws so making money for the stockholders is not the first duty of a corporation then maybe you'd get something for nothing. But this is not that time.

I typed an email to Dr. Patronis, my major professor from college and retired Professor Emeritus, to see how he reacts to change. (I will note that his sound system at home is unchanged since about 1965.) He didn't even hesitate. "Your explanation of the new Apple technology is right on and Apple has made it possible for those neanderthals who want to use their antique headphones to still do so. As you remark, they are mostly the social media crowd for whom I have a vanishingly low regard." 
I was so relieved that I was at least correct in my assertion that this is the right move for technology as I was taught it. But I was still confused why people feel so betrayed by this engineering decision. 

Here's a sample from Twitter. I guess condescension is a fair cop since my major professor just called him a neanderthal for whom he has a vanishingly low regard. But I am still trying to wrap my head around this person's perspective, which is just one of a dozen who said the same thing. This one just said it the best.

He's mad because it affects the way HE PERSONALLY uses his phone. When they changed from analog to digital TV broadcasts maybe it made a good TV obsolete, but iPhones have become much more a part of people's lives than TVs ever were. Hell, they replaced TVs for a lot of people. They replaced books for my nieces who read their whole summer reading list on their phones. They replaced the radio for my mother. People who are mad about the analog jack are not thinking of the people who build the phones in the factory. They don't give a fuck about the engineers who are trying to innovate and come up with new things who get a big opportunity when they eliminate a giant tube of air from their high density device. They're not thinking of people who drop their phones in the water (which is almost everybody I know, including myself. Although when I dropped my phone in Barton Creek it was over a meter deep and even the iPhone 7 can't handle that even though I did get it out in under 30 minutes. That story is on this blog somewhere so I won't go into it.)

Let's step back and think about this. An iPhone has become so important to this person he gets emotional when his interface to it is tampered with. If iPhones are so important why doesn't he want them to evolve and improve in the best way they can? Do we not let our puppies grow into dogs and rejoice when they stop peeing on the carpet? Things that we are emotionally attached to change all the time. We deal with that. And we can deal with the iPhone changes too.

I thought about this a lot and tried to wrap my head around the other point of view. I stopped myself from yelling at Twitter "It's a PHONE! Why are you trying to have the optimum audio experience with YOUR PHONE!?!" Because I didn't want to be condescending. Just like these people will eventually accept that the mini phone plug is no longer the connector they need I have to accept that the audio experience has become one of convenience, not quality. 

I took the full range speakers out of my mother's living room today. I removed the amplifier hooked up to them. She thought it would look nicer. Now she listens to the NPR app on her phone with a battery powered bluetooth speaker. She decided the living room would look better without audio equipment. I didn't argue with her. I just took down down the brackets and spackled the holes in the wall. 

Then I went straight to my friend's office who thinks getting rid of an outdated hole in a phone is a good idea. Now he has full range speakers next to the TV in his conference room for playing movies when he's working late. Because like me he works alone. And neither one of us get the big deal with headphones. I actually just bought a new pair for $9 that fit better in my tiny earholes. I use them under my noise reduction ear muffs so I can listen to podcasts when I mow. The ones that came with my phone hurt when I use them that way. But this purchase in no way affects what I think of a phone that costs two orders of magnitude more than that.

I feel bad for people who are upset by this change. I have empathy even when I don't have understanding. I soothe myself by projecting ahead a year. I think time is all these people need to get past this affront, this personal blow they feel has been dealt them by a company they trusted. I get how they take this personally. I think it's selfish of them to not want it to be nicer for the engineers and factory workers at Apple, but what's new? People are selfish. But people also gradually change their mind in the course of time. I decided to write this blog tonight so I can refer back to it in a year. When they introduce the iPhone 7S I expect everybody will have forgotten how upset they were over the lost jack.

For future reference, here's a good interview on Buzzfeed with Apple VP Greg Joswiak:
“The audio connector is more than 100 years old,” Joswiak says. “It had its last big innovation about 50 years ago. You know what that was? They made it smaller. It hasn’t been touched since then. It’s a dinosaur. It’s time to move on.”
This article addresses a lot of the same issues most people on social media bring up. What I like about it is the perspective from the design engineers.
For Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, the iPhone’s 3.5-millimeter audio jack has felt something like the last months of an ill-fated if amicable relationship: familiar and comfortable, but ultimately an impediment to a better life ahead. “We’ve got this 50-year-old connector — just a hole filled with air — and it’s just sitting there taking up space, really valuable space,” he says.
I feel ya, Dan. But you lose me on this part about people with cables hanging out of their ears. I'll take your word for it. That's just not how people do in my world. I did mention I'm a hermit though, right?
Riccio has been at Apple since 1998, and he has had a hand in most all of the company’s marquee hardware. He’s fully on board with the company’s wireless narrative, as well: “In a world of mobile and cellular connectivity, the one wired vestige out there is this cable hanging from people’s ears to their phones — why?” he asks. But he’s far more interested in the ripple effect of advancements the removal of the audio jack set off in the iPhone.
“It was holding us back from a number of things we wanted to put into the iPhone,” Riccio says. “It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life. And frankly, when there’s a better, modern solution available, it’s crazy to keep it around.”
I can't really speak to this wireless headphone thing. I will be curious how that takes off. I do see some interesting possibilities with the AirPods that are better at connecting to the device you want to use. I can visualize apps that make it so people can communicate throughout a facility like they did on Stargate Atlantis. Just say the person's name you want to talk to and get just them and not everybody on an open channel. Whenever they did that on the TV show I rolled my eyes. That's just not at thing you can do. Start talking and that tiny boom mic coming out of your ear magically lets you talk to only the person you want. But it could be coming soon to any group of people who all have an iPhone in their pocket and an AirPod in their ear.

That's enough predictions for today. I'll just leave this here and come back next September. I hope I'm right in predicting that people will get over their hurt feelings. I hope I wasn't too condescending.

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