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Magazine

The19thCenturyplugthat'sstillbeingused
11January2016 Magazine

ISTOCK

AfterrumoursthatApplewasgoingtogetridoftheheadphonejackinitsimminent
iPhone7,morethan200,000peoplehavesignedapetitionaskingthemtoreconsider.
Thishumbleplugisarareexampleoftechnologythathasstoodthetestoftime,writes
ChrisStokelWalker.
Forwhatremainsanunconfirmedrumour,alotofpeopleareupsetaboutthenewiPhone.It's
allegedthatApplewillbescrappingthe3.5mmsocket,insteadleavingheadphonestobe

pluggedintothe"Lightning"portthecompany'sowndesignofsocket.
CynicshavepointedoutthatwhilethismightenableiPhonestobeslightlythinner,itwillrender
manyheadphonesuselessandforcemanufacturerstopayAppleafeetousetheirLightning
plugsonproducts.
ThepetitionsaysApple'spurportedmovewould"singlehandedlycreatemountainsofelectronic
waste".

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Itwillalsobeablowforapieceoftechnologythathasbeenremarkablyresilient.The3.5mm
headphonejackisessentiallya19thCenturybitofkititisaminiaturisedversionoftheclassic
quarterinchjack(6.35mm),whichissaidtogobackasfaras1878.
Bothsizesofplughaveanubbinofmetalthatnipsinbeforeflaringoutjustbeforethetip."It
neededtobesomethingthatcouldbeinsertedandremovedveryeasily,butstillmakeasecure
connection,"saysCharlieSlee,amemberoftheAudioEngineeringSociety.
Initiallythequarterinchjackwasusedbyoperatorsinoldfashionedtelephoneswitchboards,
pluggingandunpluggingconnections."Thestandardhasalwaysbeenquarterinchjacks,"says
DrSimonHall,headofmusictechnologyatBirminghamCityUniversity.

GETTYIMAGES

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"Professionalheadphonesinstudios,guitarleadstheyallrunoffquarterinchjacks."
Ofcourse,asminiaturisationchangedaudioequipment,sotheplughadtohaveasmaller
alternative.
The3.5mmversionquicklybecamepopular,spreadbytheuseofpersonalheadsetson
transistorradiosinthemiddleofthe20thCentury.
Thejackisknownasatip,ring,sleeveorTRSconnection.The"tip"transfersaudiointothe
lefthandearplugofastereoheadphoneset,andthe"ring"theright.The"sleeve"istheground
or"shield".Thissetupisstereotheoriginalmonoplugshadonlytipandsleeve.Certain
modernplugshaveasecondringtoallowcontrolofaheadsetmicrophoneorvolume.

ISTOCK/BBC

"Technicallyspeaking,it'snotabaddesign,"Sleesaysoftheutilitarian,adaptabledesign."Ifthe
partsaremadecheaplytheycanbreakandlosecontact,butultimatelyitdoesthejobitwas
designedtodo."
Andyet,iftherumourswhichAppleisnotcommentingonaretrue,itbodesillforthe3.5mm
jack.
Applehasatrackrecordofbeingearlytoabolishthingswhichthenstarttodisappearfromrival
productstoo.Itkilledthe3.5inchfloppydiskearly.Italsowasamongthefirsttoremoveoptical
drives.

ButthosesigningthepetitionontheSumofUssiteandsocialmediausershavesuggestedthat
Apple'smotiveisgreed.

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ALAMY

ThepotentialgriefinaswitchtoApple'sproprietaryLightningconnectorisobvious.
"Itfeelspainfulbecauseyou'vegothundredsofmillionsofdevicesouttherethatareusingthe
oldstandard,"saysHoraceDediu,atechnologyanalystwithindepthknowledgeofApple.
Ifyou'reusing1,000headphoneswithyouriPhoneatthemoment,you'regoingtobeslightly
cross.
AndCharlieSleethinksconsumersarealsoconcernedaboutcedingcontroltoApple."People
aremainlyupsetbecausetheyliketothinkthey'reincontroloftheirtechnology,"hesays.
Butthissenseoftheconsumerincontrolismisplaced,Sleesays."Actually,thecontraryistrue:
Thebigtechnologycompanieshavealwaysbeenincontrolofhowyoulistentomusicand
watchvideos."

Theheadphonesinhistory

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The"primitiveheadphones"(asabove)usedforlisteningtoearlyphonographsweresimple
acoustictubes.
Headphonesarereallyjustordinarytelephonereceiversadaptedtofitaheadset,saysJohn
Liffen,CuratorofCommunicationsattheScienceMuseum.Theheadsetusuallyhadjustone
receiverforasingleear.
Thefirstheadsetswithareceiverforeachearwerejustcalled"telephones".Thenamewas
supplantedby"headphones"bythebeginningofthe1920swhentheywerebeingwidelyusedto
listentobroadcastingviacrystalsets.
Formanyyearsheadphonereceiverswerethesimple"Bell"typewithpermanentmagnet,coil
anddiaphragm.Today'shighend'phonesareconsiderablymoresophisticated,similarto
miniatureloudspeakers.
Source:JohnLiffen,TheScienceMuseum
"Ithinkit'sastorminateacup,"addsSimonHall.Hisreasoning?Havingastandardised
headphonejackonmobilephonesandMP3playersisonlyarelativelyrecentluxury.
"Ifyoulookatthepreviousgenerationofphones,thingslikeNokiaphones,youhadtohavean
adapter,"hereasons."Ifyouwanttoconnectheadphonestoprofessionalequipment,youalso

needaprofessionaladapter."
Asrecentlyas2010,Samsungphonescameequippedwithaproprietaryheadphoneportnot
dissimilartoApple'srumouredreplacementforthe3.5mmsocket,the"Lightning"port.
Thisisn'tthefirsttimeApplehasarousedire.Waybackin2007,withthefirstiPhone,itreceived
complaintsthattheheadphonejackwassunkintothecasing.
Onetechnologywagcalledit"agreatbusinessplanbreakanimportantdevicefunction,and
sellthesolutionforfunandprofit."TheproblemwasfixedwhenApplereleaseditssecond
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iPhonemodelin2008.
ButAppleisknownforevolvingtechnology:"TheygotridofDVDs,theygotridofthefloppydisk
drivetheygotridofparallelports,they'reeventuallygettingridofUSB.Thisishowtheymove,"
saysDediu,theApplewatcher.HereckonstheswitchtoApple'sproprietaryconnectionaugurs
aplannedmovetoheadphonesthatareakintotheAppleWatch.

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Ownersof"old"headphonesmayfindthemselveshavingtobuyadapters.
Dediuforecastsarapidchange."WhatAppledoesiscatalysetransitions,"hesays."Itwould
havehappenedanyway,butifitwasn'tforAppleit'dhavetaken1015years,butnowit'llhappen
in57years."
Thatthetimemayhavecomeforthe3.5mmjacktobereplacedshouldn'tcomeassucha
shock,believesDediu."StudyingMoore'sLawandthehistoryoftechnology,it'sclearwe'renot
goingtostickaroundwithsomethinganalogueforlong,"hesays."It'salmostpuzzlingthatit's
takensolong."
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