Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 last week, changing the way we’re expected to use headphones with the device.  Maybe changing the way we use headphones forever.

If you’ve spent time with me or in any of my workshops, you’re familiar with the Aspirational customer (here’s a blog post I wrote about this that’ll help explain the Aspirational customer.) For the rest of you, Aspirational customers are, for many (not all) businesses, the ideal customer, for many reasons. Aspirational customers are defined by their desire to engage in an experience with us, rather than seeking strictly the lowest price or most convenience. They’re most likely to become our evangelists. They’re most likely to become our believers and our followers, meaning that they’ll stick with us as we try new things. Another trait of the Aspirational customer is that they want us to innovate.

As consumers, sometimes innovation makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes it requires discomfort. There’s a quote often attributed to Henry Ford (whether he actually said it or not is in some dispute) that captures his innovative spirit:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Steve Jobs once said,

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

The argument for innovation

Last week Apple announced the iPhone 7, which eliminated the standard headphone jack that’s been ubiquitous to consumer electronics since there were electronics to consume. You’ve seen it and heard about it – there’s a lot of hand-wringing about it right now. Some of this is just headline manufacturing, I think, but there are legitimate concerns about the implications of losing the headphone jack. And it will, in the short term, be inconvenient for many, especially those that like to charge their phones and listen to them at the same time and who haven’t switched to Bluetooth wireless headphones.

The argument that Apple did this as a money grab to get more people to buy extra stuff demonstrates a misunderstanding in how Apple does business, so I won’t spend time on that. Instead, to understand Apple’s possible way of thinking on this let’s fast forward a few short years to what this decision means and what I think Apple might have in mind.

  • It pushes wireless technologies forward. Bluetooth headphones have been notoriously difficult to pair to devices and can have suspicious audio quality. Apple’s new wireless AirPods headphones set a new standard for overcoming the issue of pairing. If precedence is any indicator – and it probably is – 3rd party headphones and technologies and soon enough Apple’s Android competitors will start innovating as well. This is all only good for us, the consumer.
  • It opens up the future. In maybe 2 short years, the Apple Watch will have its own cellular capabilities. We won’t all carry glass bricks around with us forever you know, and its conceivable to me that an alternative device like the Watch could become the device of choice for many people ready and willing to stop carrying a thing around in their back pockets or purses. Wireless headphones are the only way this thing works.
  • In maybe a year or two Apple will likely introduce wireless inductive charging. A system where you just place your phone on or near some other device, without the necessity to plug it in, and it’ll charge (lots of Android devices do this now.) It opens up a lot of flexibility for you if your device is charging (plugged in or not) but you’re not still tethered to it.
  • Devices can become smaller without compromising screen real estate. Your iPhone (or Android device) requires a lot of physical space above the screen and below it for the electronics and large battery inside. On my iPhone SE, look at how much physical space is required to accommodate the headphone plug:

imageYup, about the height of the bottom bezel of the phone. Without that plug engineers can think differently about the insides of the device. As Apple’s marketing head Phil Schiller said in introducing the iPhone 7, this allows larger batteries (which generally means longer battery life) or more features or functionality. There are already rumors that the next iPhone will be mostly screen. With the bezel typically around the screen gone or reduced, devices can conceivably get smaller and more convenient without sacrificing the screen sizes we like to use.

  • Take these ideas 5 or 6 years down the road, after we’re all very comfortable with wireless headphones and we’re charging our phones wirelessly. What’s the point of the lightning port at all, then? Apple will eliminate it, too, in time. In fact, a decade down the road the “iPhone” as we know it might be almost unrecognizable.
  • As Apple undoubtedly gets involved with virtual reality and even cars, having a wire-free ecosystem will become more and more important in ways we don’t even understand yet. And if you think about it, wires of any sort are antithesis to a portable, mobile lifestyle.
  • Here’s an idea that seems crazy right now – Apple also announced the AirPods wireless headphones with Siri integration. In 10 years or so (give or take), with advances in hardware manufacturing, wireless technology, and artificial intelligence an earphone might be our primary mobile device. No screens, swipes, taps or pecks at all. Just voice control and head movements.

None of this really matters right now, because we can’t picture it or it isn’t important to us right now. But it will be. And sometime it has to start with shedding the inefficiency of the headphone jack.  Apple believes it has a responsibility on behalf of its customers to understand this. Schiller said last week that it took “courage” for Apple to remove the headphone jack, which was an inelegant choice of words. Steve Jobs said it all much better in 2010 when describing a similar situation – omitting Flash from the iPhone (Start at 2:45, though the whole thing is great and man we miss Steve Jobs around.)

I love what Jobs says about technologies “in their ascendency.”  There is no argument that the old 3.5mm headphone jack is not in its ascendency.  Willfulness to remove the headphone jack does require insistence, foresight, and the willingness to make people uncomfortable in the short term for long-term improvements and innovation.  To, as Jobs says, take the heat. Apple once eliminated the ethernet port from its laptop computers. It eliminated the optical (CD) drive just 4 years ago. It eliminated the floppy disk drive 18 years ago. Each time people freaked out. Today cloud computing is how most of us go, laptops are thin, light, and portable, and we stream our music and movies. And nobody cares about Flash anymore – largely because Apple decided not to include it, which forced advancements in browser technologies all the way around. It’s how things go.  (If you’re interested in more thoughts about the Apple-ness of all this, here’s a great read from John Gruber of Daring Fireball.)

This is what Aspirational companies do because – again, as Jobs points out – it’s what their customers are asking them to do.  To make sometimes tough or uncomfortable decisions that, in the long run, serve them better than they imagine right now.

Small business – pay attention!

I’ve spent my career working in, with, for and on small businesses.  I argue that if we in small business were to look at our own models, services, and relationships with equal shrewdness, it would serve us all better.

  • Where are you getting by with just good enough, or doing things because it’s the status quo?
  • Where is some inefficiency or unruly process getting in the way that you just haven’t taken the time to deal with?
  • What metaphorical cords in your business or business relationships keep getting tangled over and over, but you’re unwilling or afraid to just eliminate those distractions altogether?
  • What opportunities might only exist down the road if you do something uncomfortable now to help create or nurture their possibility? Are you willing to explore it?
  • What products, relationships, or value propositions can you identity in your business that are “in their ascendency?”  Is growth or potential being choked by anything outdated, inefficienct, or no longer nourishing to the possibilities?

Certainly we don’t all have the resources of Apple where we can respond to these challenges with surgical deletion of the annoyance. But at least let’s ask the questions. At least let’s have foresight to chart a path intentionally whenever possible, rather than rolling along because it’s how it’s always been done and it’s how everybody’s doing it.

Being in digital business – and we’re all in digital business today – means being willing to open our eyes to potential. Knowing that what works for us today and makes us comfortable can, will, and must change. Don’t be afraid of it, I say – shift your perspective so you, too, can create something totally unexpected that will delight your customers.  After all, they expect it from you.

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Chris Bintliff

Chris Bintliff helps organizations create marketing that makes money. His Not Really Rocket Science platform helps drive a modern marketing engine that attracts customers, builds relationships and delivers sales opportunities. When he’s not writing, building, designing, delivering, speaking, teaching or strategizing (is that a word?) he enjoys talking about himself in the third person. Learn more about what he does and how he does it.
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