Rich Warren: Apple's again worming in on the fun

Rich Warren: Apple's again worming in on the fun

Internet sites recently leaked plans from the darling of technology to forsake the world standard headphone jack for a proprietary headphone jack.

Just over a year ago Apple changed its proprietary 30-pin jack to a new proprietary micro "Lightning" connector. This forced consumers who bought new Apple products to buy $29 adapters to continue using their legacy accessories.

This conversion mainly affected the Apple universe. If Apple confirms the recent leak, all existing headphones would need an adapter for new Apple products.

What a coincidence that Apple recently purchased Beats headphones for $3 billion. As a subsidiary, Beats will pay Apple no royalties to use the new connector.

The current standard 3.5mm headphone jack, formally called a TRS jack, is a scaled down version of the 1/4-inch headphone jack that has served listeners for at least 60 years.

The headphone jack evolved from the jacks once used by Bell telephone to connect telephone calls and remains in scattered use, although nearly all patch bays have been replaced by electronic switching.

When stereo came along in the 1950s, engineers simply added an additional ring (and attendant wire) to the plug and jack. At the same time, when tiny transistor radios arrived, engineers shrank the jack.

A variant of that small headphone jack serves us well today. Most standard audio components still use the full-size jack. Many manufacturers include adapters that convert full-size to mini/micro or vice-versa.

The adapter costs a few dollars, since you pay only for the actual piece of hardware without patent royalties added.

Apple claims its Lightning connector for headphones will increase fidelity and functionality. Users can control their product from the headphones and the headphones could include their own digital to analog converters.

Unless you use very expensive headphones the increase in fidelity is a red herring.

Right now headphone companies pay no royalties for the plug on the end of the cord.

If Apple prevails, headphone companies will pay Apple for the plug, raising prices. Although Apple believes itself to be the center of the universe, hundreds of other companies continue using the conventional headphone plug.

Thus, users who might have both Android smartphones or tablets and Apple products would buy an adapter, further boosting Apple's stock price.

Perusing the shelves of a local big box store in search of a USB to Lightning adapter (for charging an iPad/iPhone 5) prices ranged from $30-$40. Yet, similar adapters/connectors from USB to other plugs cost $10-$20. Full-size USB to mini or micro USB cables are so cheap that many manufacturers include them with products when necessary.

The final insult will be the bulk added to the headphone cord by the adapter from phone plug to Lightning.

Few companies possess the market power of Apple. Even in Sony's heyday it never conceived of a propriety headphone jack.

Sony tried just about everything else, such as proprietary data compression by using its own ATRAC instead of MP3, and proprietary Memory Stick and then Vita memory cards instead of compact flash and secure digital (SD) cards. Both endeavors failed. The late, unlamented Circuit City attempted proprietary self-destructing DVDs. That effort was one of the reasons Gander Mountain now occupies the former Circuit City storefront on North Prospect.

Innovation drives the future and benefits all of us. Innovation works best when collaborative. The compact disc and ultimately the DVD (after Sony threw in the towel and joined the crowd) serve as examples of great collaborative innovation.

Fraunhofer owns most of the patents for MP3 encoding, but it worked in collaboration with many companies, including AT&T-Bell Labs and Thomson-Brandt as well as some universities.

Fraunhofer marketed no hardware of its own; thus it was a neutral innovator treating all hardware and software developers equally. There may be other, and better, encoding systems, including one from Apple, but MP3 is the world standard.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Music, Technology

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