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The War For Our Ears

Earlier this week Apple announced that it was straight-up ditching the headphone jack in the latest iteration of their ‘Call of Duty’ of phones. Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, described it as “courage to move on” while the opposing camp joked that Apple might leave the screen behind next in search for an even slimmer model. Without the iconic white wires of Apple’s image, the idea is that people will use a wireless Bluetooth version called AirPods, which look a lot like a bizarre bathroom experiment with an electric toothbrush.

There are many arguments on both sides to reason out why Apple made this decision and what kind of impact it’s going to have on its users. There are quite a number of short-term cons and some long-term gambles on the table. The Big Fruit seems to be trying to preempt the inevitable war to capture our ear-holes and the next technological frontier; it began with simple GUIs and interactive displays, and now we’re looking at the next big thing: wireless communication – well, that’s what Apple thinks anyway.

It’s hard to deny that with the advent of services like Siri, Ok Google, Cortana and – most recently – Alexa, we’ve entered into an era of semi-intelligent AI that can finally make our devices respond to our every whim. Outlets like Forbes argue that we “have to lose it eventually”, so why not now? The current state of technology is in a permanent state of innovation & change: in 2013 Google released Glass for the same reasons Apple unveiled the AirPods; audio provides an ideal way to interact with your devices and stay constantly connected to everything while still being unobtrusive. The end-goal is to make the entire interface invisible and seamless. Soon, it’ll be natural to wander down the streets, muttering to yourself and desperately fiddling with your foil hat.

At first, it would seem Apple is being user-hostile and alienating those who rely on their current specialized audio devices to interact with the world around them – the hearing-impaired. Having to buy adapters for already-expensive equipment would be a real kick in the teeth. However, The Company That Never Sleeps has been working with companies like Starkey Hearing Technologies since 2014 to create the world’s first smartphone-connected hearing aids. The codec that they developed is now in the AirPods and allowed streaming of audio over low-energy Bluetooth for the very first time – an innovation for the world and those without 20/20 hearing.

Unfortunately, though, this movement towards digital audio also brings us to the big front door of the single underlying monster the internet has fought for years: The Flying Copyright Monster. Right now, how you listen to your music is purely analog but with the move to digital output, we run the risk of DRM software running directly on the connection. With the advent of HDMI cables, we saw this situation play out already. The first software update to hit all of our devices was HD Content Protection (HDCP). Copyright enforcement is a slippery slope that disproportionately affects legal users and does little to deter infringement.

Whether this is a bid for the future or big-copyright muscling in (on the biggest industry they could never control) has yet to be seen. Fortunately, the iPhone 7 will be shipping with an adapter to convert the lightning port to an audio jack so, at least for the time-being, we won’t be waving goodbye to the wires that entangle our lives.