Jack’s Hit: Apple’s Missing Socket

There’s been a lot of talk about the removal of the iPhone’s audio jack, most of it knee-jerk, albeit sometimes amusing. A sampling:

I’m no fan-boi, but I find most of this coverage small-minded. Yes, I get that there’s a potential inconvenience here:

  • if you don’t have the lightning-jack adapter, then you can’t use your existing earphones. 
  • Yes, Apple is prodding you in the direction of its expensive wireless AirPods. 
  • Yes, wireless tech is not quite as ready as it could be for the pairing to be seamless. 
  • Yes, these things are easy to lose.
  • Yes, using the headphone and charging at the same time is not going to be possible without some adapter. (This is an oversight, I agree.) 
  • yes, Apple makes more money, because it owns the lightning connector and makes maybe $4 off each device that uses it. (Yes, I don’t like this either. But the wireless 

But two years down the track these kinds of arguments will seem as anachronistic as those that lamented the phasing out of the floppy drive, the serial port, the parallel port, the CD/DVD-rom drive, its own Firewire and 30 pin connectors. (The ultimate Apple I/O death chart – The Verge)

Oddly, both the arguments by Apple and its supporters are also somewhat limited in their horizons. Apple argues that it needs more space inside the device to pack more goodies in. That the technology itself is more than 100 years old. That it makes it easier to waterproof the device. That audio via Lightning or wireless is actually as good as, if not a better, experience. Apple has talked about being courageous, which is a tad disingenuous: brave is risking everything on a startup, not when you’ve got $200 billion sitting around.

The real reason why being pro-jack is going to seem a little Luddite in the future is that the future is not just wireless, it’s deviceless. The smart watch tried (and in my view failed) to move the functionality of the smartphone to the wrist. It’s not a natural place for that functionality to be, because you’re still looking at, and tapping on a screen. It’s just smaller, closer to your face and strapped on. Same with Google Glass. Nice idea, but you’re still looking at a screen, and people hate you.

The device should disappear, all of its features — input, output — internalised. Preferably inside the body. But we can’t do that quite yet, hence the earbud. A good earbud should be both controller and receptor. That’s where we’re going. This is what I wrote for Reuters on the subject. Here’s what I said on Reuters TV.

Nothing too revolutionary here. It only seems so because the debate around jack’s hit has been so mundane, so parochial, as if technology should stand still, and technology companies should listen solely to their users. The phrase ‘faster horse’ springs to mind. Apple isn’t even leading the field on this. There are at least three other smartphone companies which have already ditched the audio jack — Oppo did it four years ago.

We’ll look back at the folk who protested the disappearance of the jack as slightly quaint folk who didn’t get it. Everything leads inexorably towards breaking down the barriers between us and the technology we use — until eventually it is inside our skull. Next to it is close enough for now. 

Hence Ben Thompson, who nailed it with this piece Beyond the iPhone, saying that this wireless, deviceless future is one which may not involve much of Apple at all. 

To Apple’s credit they are, with the creation of AirPods, laying the foundation for a world beyond the iPhone. It is a world where, thanks to their being a product — not services — company, Apple is at a disadvantage; however, it is also a world that Apple, thanks to said product expertise, especially when it comes to chips, is uniquely equipped to create. That the company is running towards it is both wise — the sooner they get there, the longer they have to iterate and improve and hold off competitors — and also, yes, courageous. The easy thing would be to fight to keep us in a world where phones are all that matters, even if, in the long run, that would only prolong the end of Apple’s dominance.

In that sense, Apple has never stood in the way of its own destruction. Yes, it has penny pinched — taxing accessory makers, avoiding taxes elsewhere, squeezing suppliers — but it has not shied away from making these bigger decisions. What is interesting is that in this new world to come it may be at a disadvantage. 

Innovative Complacency or the Wisdom of the Deceived?

 

This is where I see a real problem for developed Asia: a complacency and disinterest in the role of technology and innovation. Or is it the clarity of vision from too much innovation?

Screenshot 2016 08 26 05 09 48
Source: Avaya, THE PROMISE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (DX) IN ASIA PACIFIC’S LEADING INSTITUTIONS

In a survey conducted by IDC on behalf of Avaya (no link available, you need to sign up to get a copy), key IT decision makers from developed Asian countries (leaving aside Australia for now) were much more likely to downplay the role of innovation in driving business. Singapore came lowest with 14% of respondents believing the statement “innovation is extremely important to drive business.” Compare that to around 40% in India, Thailand and the Philippines.

(Avaya, in case you’re wondering, “is a leading provider of solutions that enable customer and team engagement across multiple channels and devices for better customer experience, increased productivity and enhanced financial performance.” That could probably be simplified.)

In short (excluding Taiwan for which there is no World Bank data, and Australia, for now) the Asian economies with the highest GDP per capita — Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong – are those that value innovation the least. South Korea is only slightly behind there in terms of valuing innovation.

The same holds true when measured by Internet penetration: the more internet there is, the less valued is innovation.

Screenshot 2016 08 27 14 29 10
Source: Avaya survey (col 1), World Bank (cols 2-3)

 

At the other end, it’s also generally true. The lower the GDP, the more likely a country is to value innovation.

The sad truism is that once you reach a certain level of development — and you don’t experience serious recession or other economic upheaval — you tend to see innovation as an unwelcome disruption. In other words, you identify with the established industries, the established way of doing things, probably because that’s where you work and get your living from.

Looking at it the other way, the less developed a country is, the more people — and we’re talking ‘key IT decision makers’ here, not the rank and file folk — see innovation as a way of improving things.

Of course, there’s another possibility too: that those ‘key IT decision makers’ have seen innovation and they realise it isn’t as great as everyone makes it out to be. Indeed, I have some sympathy with that view. The more ‘disruptive’ a technology is, the more disruption it causes — meaning not just that big slow behemoths are put to the sword, but the people who work for them, the companies that supply to them, or make a little here and there in the supply chain.

A truly disruptive business/technology will not only chop off the head of an industry, it will cut off the entrails and lay to waste the body. That can be painful, and not necessarily good for consumers, or anyone standing in the way.

The other question raised in the survey was whether traditional traditional companies in the Asia Pacific would be able to take control against ‘Uber-like’ competitors. Nearly half said it was difficult to compete against such disruptors, and only 3% said they planned to be disruptors themselves. And while 43% felt they were on a par with their peers in terms of being able to fight back, only 6% felt they were “best in class”. Asian modesty, or a serious crisis of confidence?

Australia and China are worth a separate look here. Australia scored highest on the innovation/importance question, with more than 46% of respondents reckoning it was important. That’s good, but it’s probably part cultural. Why would you not at least pay lip service to the Innovation God?

And China skewed the other way. You would kind of expect China to be up there given what is going on in technology. But it’s low — 21/5% — less than South Korea, suggesting that either they were asking the wrong folk, or, maybe the disruption in China is already giving ‘key IT decision makers’ pause. China is by far the furthest down the track in terms of disruption in Asia, so maybe there is some truth in the alternative explanation of this (admittedly scant) data: As economies become more disrupted, so the key ‘IT decision makers’ in them become more pessimistic about how useful innovation is to the economy.

BBC: Cluetraining Disruption

Has technology, convinced of its own rectitude, lost its sense of moral direction? 

Disruptive innovation is one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling. It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

Backlash 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist.   But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably. 15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said.   For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond.

Last blast

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you.

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance, that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap.

Rapid cycle

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either.

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place.

This was a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content – JW

Looking for Inventors

I’m looking for inventors who want me to try out their stuff. It doesn’t have to be in the shops yet, but it has to be something I can actually use. If it’s an interesting enough invention I’ll write about it. Write to me at invent (at) jeremywagstaff.com; no NDAs to sign please.