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Hit The Road, Headphone Jack: New iPhone Goes Wireless


Apple introduced its iPhone 7 today. They say it's slimmer, sleeker and that the camera's better. And, yes, the rumors are true. There's no headphone jack. Users will have to use wireless headphones or Apple's lightning port instead. But the old plug-and-socket combination - the jack - has been around in one form or another for more than a hundred years. Jonathan Sterne of McGill University is here to tell us about it. He wrote the book "The Audible Past: Cultural Origins Of Sound Reproduction." Jonathan Sterne, welcome to the program.

JONATHAN STERNE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: I gather the jack - it all started with the telephone, specifically switchboard operators in the 1880s. Is that right?

STERNE: Yeah, 1888 is the first switchboard. And the idea basically is you'd pick up your phone at home. It would connect you to an operator who was wearing some kind of headset. And then you'd tell him who you wanted to call, and they'd plug a cable with two quarter-inch plugs on - one on each end. They'd plug one into a jack for your phone and one for the phone of the person you wanted to be connected to.

CORNISH: Fast forward to the modern jack we all know about, which is even smaller than that, right? It's not that quarter-inch jack that we may know from, like, hi-fi sets or guitars or something like that.

STERNE: No, no, it's a smaller jack. We don't know exactly when that was invented. The first widespread consumer use was transistor radios. The first one was 1954, I think. But it's likely that shape of the plug was in use in military uses before that and probably also for hearing aids, which is where a lot of advances in miniaturization happened.

CORNISH: So what made it ubiquitous? What do you think it is about the technology that's helped it last for so long?

STERNE: Well, I think it's a couple of things. One is with any kind of plugger jack - I mean, the same thing with the outlets in your wall - anything you can do to standardize is really useful unless you control the market. So if you want to make a new kind of transistor radio, and somebody's already invested in a good earphone, although they weren't very good, you'd want yours to work with their earphone. And that's why other formats, like USB, as well, because people want to be able to plug their stuff into the other stuff that they have.

CORNISH: What are the odds that the headphones jack could finally go away? You know, whether it's rock musicians or your television, there are all kinds of places where this is the default technology.

STERNE: I think it's highly unlikely in the near term that you're going to see it go away. But it is true that casual users who maybe only wear earbuds to go with their Apple products might eventually move away from them.

CORNISH: Finally, Jonathan Sterne, why is this such a big deal? I mean, I know it's lasted a long time, but why do you think people are freaking out?

STERNE: Well, I think it's a couple things. One is that the earbuds that come with originally iPod and the iPhone are still iconic in Apple's advertisement - so those little cables on the black figures that you see in the stores. The whole device has represented independence for people, I think - that you can do more on the go, that you're freer, that you're more flexible, that you're more available, that you're able to do different kinds of things.

But at the same time, this freedom comes with a cost. And the cost is you're increasingly locked into the decisions of the company whose platform you use. And so the headphone jack, which - let's face it - is just another plug to plug things into, become symbolic of Apple's constantly changing products. And I think it's a little disturbing to people because it's a reminder that they're really not in control of their media lives.

CORNISH: That's Jonathan Sterne. He's the author of "The Audible Past: Cultural Origins Of Sound Reproduction." Thanks so much for talking with us.

STERNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.