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How badly will the 3.5mm jack be missed?


29th Jan 2016

The modern touchscreen smartphone has well and truly shifted away from being a phone, and is a multimedia device and a social networking and internet portal. As a result, such devices need a larger visual display and, with it, a larger battery to power them. However, as there seem to be few ground-breaking advances in lithium-ion battery technology, trying to keep the bulkiness of a phone’s posterior to a minimum has been a challenge for all major phone manufacturers.

You might have noticed how indistinguishable many of the different ‘flagship’ smartphones are within a certain price bracket, especially when comparing them from an internal hardware perspective. For a meaningful comparison, you might then turn to the myriad of minor distinguishing features. However, the size of a smartphone is still one of the simplest comparison benchmarks that allows a phone manufacturer to gain a competitive edge over its rivals in an increasingly crowded marketplace. One of Apple’s granted patents this week for a “Small form factor high-resolution camera” (US patent 9,244,253) is testimony to the (possible) efforts made by phone manufacturers to cram ever more components into an ever-shrinking device line-up.

The problem is that a smartphone can only be as thin as its largest internal component, and some of these simply cannot be shrunk down. The list perhaps includes the trusty 3.5mm headphone jack. It has been rumoured that Apple is to do away with this socket, which has become a staple in our technology diet, in the next generation iPhone.

In June 2014, Apple unveiled plans to use the Lightning port (introduced around the time of the iPhone 5 launch) as a way of getting audio in and out of its devices. Apart from reducing the thickness of your phone, the main advantage it would seem is the ability for the headphones to draw power from the device, which would allow noise-cancelling technology to be used without the hassle of batteries or the need to charge them separately. The only obvious problem in using the Lightning plug in this way would be that iPhone users would not be able to use audio via headphones and charge their device simultaneously.

Apple stoked some debate when it brought in the Lightning port and connector, mainly over the subject of increasing unnecessary electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’. The term e-waste is loosely applied to consumer and business electronic equipment that is near or at the end of its useful life. Mobile phones have unfortunately become one of the top sources of e-waste products because of their relatively short life-span, which is, in most cases, no more than two years. According to the European Environment Agency one of the worrying environmental issues with e-waste is that few countries understand the scale of the problem, because no track is kept of it. The Agency estimates between 250,000 tonnes and 1.3m tonnes of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year, mostly to west Africa and Asia. Back in March 2014, this resulted in European politicians backing a regulation that will force smartphone makers to use just one type of charger, the favoured standard being the Micro USB connector – a format already used on many handsets and other devices.

Interestingly, in September 2015, a publication of one Apple’s patents revealed a new technology that might replace the 3.5mm jack. It might even appear in the much anticipated iPhone 7, rumoured to be scheduled for release in late 2016. The new connector is the D-jack (“Headset D-Shaped Connector”, US patent 9,142,925). This miniaturised version would sport all the functionality of the conventional 3.5mm tip, ring, ring, sleeve (TRRS) connector, but with a trimmed down profile suitable for use in thinner devices. Less conventional, however, is its shape: the D-shaped connector has one flat side that acts as a keyed aspect when inserted into the socket.

Apple’s D-jack solution on paper proves considerably thinner than the 3.5mm jack. On the other hand, if implemented, it almost certainly means replacing all compatible headphones or using an adapter, of course unless you own a Bluetooth set. It is possible that any decision to completely scrap the 3.5mm jack has the potential to singlehandedly create mountains of e-waste from a widely used technology that has been around for many decades.

Not wishing to stand in the way of innovation or be overly nostalgic about this relatively ancient piece of hardware, but what is crucially needed is for all the major phone manufactures to agree upon both a charger and headphone socket / connector convention, and sooner rather than later. However, as technology consumers, maybe we should also be asking ourselves “how thin do we really need our phones to be?”

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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