Jack, The early years
Born in 1964, the 3.5 mm audio ‘Jack’ was the middle sized of three commonly used audio connectors, along with its bigger sibling; still heavily used in professional audio circles the 6.35 mm audio jack (Born in 1878 for use on telephone exchanges) and it’s smaller sibling the 2.5mm audio jack.
Popularised by the earliest portable devices, such as portable radios, and later in life portable cassette players the standardised 3.5mm headphone Jack could well be one of the most long-running ubiquitous piece of interoperable electronics on the planet.
Development and growth
Being over 138 years old doesn’t mean Jack’s family didn’t keep up with the times. Over the years Jack has redefined himself, first moving from mono to stereo channels, then incorporating a microphone channel, and recently in life even adapting to send modulated control signal to attached ‘Smart Devices’
If you are reading this then it would be safe to assume that you have owned, lost, replaced and misplaced dozens if not hundreds of Jacks. The Jack has provided decades of interoperable use between all of your devices, telephones, televisions, portable music devices …. you name it. If it was a consumer device that put out audio the likelihood is it included a Jack, and it was interoperable.
A loss of relevance
Apparently these decades of open interoperability just wasn’t enough to keep Jack alive. In the ever quickening race towards device so thin we can’t hold them and whose batteries barely last half a day, the 3.5 mm thickness of the Jack appears to have been too much.
We now race towards a new wired audio standard, or is that two standards, or will it be more? USB-C, which in its defence is an open engineering standard will support both direct audio transmission and output to an adapter. The lightning adapter, however, is not an open standard and is strictly controlled by its owner but would offer similar functionality.
Jacks cousin Blue
In addition, Jack is facing competition from the emergence of wireless connectivity that offers a level of versatility that Jack simply can’t including that of wireless audio streaming. Bluetooth audio has now been improving as the technology has moved from static-laced audio, clearing as Bluetooth versions progress and now with A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) on Bluetooth 4 offering crystal clear and high bitrate audio – connecting cables to Jack really has lost relevance even to users who are highly critical of audio quality.
These factors combined with improving battery life, faster charging and wireless headphones incorporating other sensors just moves Jack further towards irrelevance. If we could achieve an easier standard for pairing, and unpairing, Bluetooth devices the ‘difficulty’ in using them would all but evaporate. NFC for pairing is great but not all devices have NFC.
The emergence of Jack’s successor
Imagine the world where you buy a set of headphones but they only work on some of the devices, you’ll need an adapter, or worse a second, or third set to work, even at a basic level across every device. Now it is true that there are actually difference “control” standards on the existing 3.5mm connectors (i.e. for volume and skip controls) however, the basics of the audio work across all of your devices. This is why we have standards.
Today marked a significant blow to Jack’s health as yet another device was announced without the long running audio connector as part of its bill of materials. While Jack is not dead, yet, it’s looking like there is an onslaught coming from which recovery just may not be possible. Jack may always be around in some niche areas, but his day of ubiquity are at a real risk of ending.
So if that’s the past what is the future of wired connections?
Well in the short term I foresee a future of frustration. A future full of adapters, flat batteries, incompatible devices and an inability to accomplish what up until now has been a simple task, getting audio out of our devices.
Perhaps there is a future of gold ahead of this. Change can be difficult, however, could the future of wired connections be better? Some say yes. The newer standards do bring with them some advantages, for instance, the connectors are thinner, allowing for thinner and lighter devices. Reducing one port makes weather ingress protection easier.
The newer cables incorporate far more capabilities for both power distribution and data transfer. Imagine powering noise cancelling headphones from the device it’s plugged into. More data bandwidth will allow for more controls and when developers get their hands on them who knows what kinds of new functionality we could see.
Whatever the outcome, with Motorola disposing of Jack and Apple rumoured to do the same it is near certain that other big players will follow soon after.
If 3.5 mm Headphone Jacks do go the way of the Dodo will you miss them? Let us know in the comments.