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Rumors, headphone jacks and the cost of doing business in the Apple ecosystem

DUBLIN — So let’s say you’re a company that has a great idea for a piece of mobile hardware for the iPhone. You spend money and time prototyping and refining. You run a Kickstarter campaign to get the money to produce your idea. You tool for production. You have a product ready to ship.

What do you do when Apple announces that it’s changing the design of the iPhone in two months?

“We scream,” says Jon Goldberg, president of Padcaster, a New York-based company that makes frames that hold phones and tablets so they can be used for video capture.

“No, really,” says Josh Apter, Padcaster’s CEO. “The biggest change between the (iPad) Air 1 and the Air 2 was that Apple moved the lens one-sixteenth of an inch. We had to redesign for that.”

That change required re-prototyping on a 3-D printer and working with the factory that builds the company’s tablet frames, then retooling production to accommodate.

Padcaster is one of scores of companies that have popped up in the last few years to provide accessories to people and companies who want to turn their mobile devices into video and audio production units. Business has been good – prices of many industry products have doubled in the last 18 months and established media production manufacturers are bringing a steady stream of new products to market. But the companies face a known unknown: Apple dominates the mobile journalism market. And Apple constantly changes the sizes of its products.

This year is no exception. The September announcement of the iPhone 7 is rumored to confirm a major design change: the headphone jack is going away. If it’s true, doing away with the jack is Apple’s way of making the iPhone even thinner. Getting rid of the round jack and providing sound through Bluetooth headphones allows the phone to be built as a flat, thinner device (here’s a full run-down of iPhone 7 rumors so you can drive yourself mad).

It’s a change that’s been discussed among mobile journalism trainers, consultants and equipment manufacturers. At April’s Mojocon, the Dublin conference on mobile journalism, questions about the design change brought out weary comments. They’re the same comments trainers and manufacturers made about the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 5.

Apple is doing this to make money.

Apple is pursuing form and sacrificing function.

We can’t do anything about it. It’s just Apple.

The headphone jack is one part of a larger design. But it will affect the phone’s dimensions and function – and thus, everything about the handset.

“It’s almost inevitable that we’ll have to redesign,” says Brandon Hoe, a Durham, North Carolina, commercial photographer who recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of an iPhone video case called the Helium Core.  “I know that I’m going to have to do it.”

It took Hoe two-and-a-half years of thinking and sketching and prototyping to reach this point. His first Helium Cores will fit the iPhone 6, 6S, 6+ and 6S+ and are supposed to ship in July. Building cases that fit specific phone models is a game of fractions of inches so he needs a physical model. If the hole cut out for the camera is just a shade too small, users won’t be able to shoot video. That’s a product killer. So he knows he’ll be standing in front of the Apple Store when the new iPhone 7 comes out so he can buy it and get the measurements — especially if the rumors are true and the new iPhones have two rear-facing cameras.

Hoe estimates it will take him three weeks to get a new design worked out. The factory that casts the Heliums – they’re made out of aircraft-grade aluminum – takes 45 days to re-tool. He can probably get a new version to market in two-and-a-half months, he says. But Hoe builds a professional-grade product, not one for the masses, and the people who would buy Heliums are most likely early adopters of the new iPhone.

“It’s what Apple does,” he says with a shrug.  

That’s true. And the design change getting rid of the headphone jack affects more than just the manufacturers. Plenty of journalists have invested in tools that use the jack as an input for audio signal.

“It means I’m going to have to throw a lot of stuff out,” says Wytse Vellinga, a reporter and mobile trainer for Omrop Fryslan, a TV station in the Netherlands. “I use it a lot. It’s where I plug in my microphone.”

Vellinga has three different microphones that use the headphone jack. With no headphone jack, all three are useless. He’s caught in the classic Apple trap: Keep his current phone and use his current equipment or upgrade and have to invest several hundred dollars in new equipment. Or worse, upgrade to the new phone first and have to wait several months until manufacturers have caught up and updated their products to match the news design.

If he ever does upgrade to the iPhone 7, he’ll face another issue – the loss of audio fidelity when monitoring sound while recording. Low-end Bluetooth headphones lack the audio range of wired headphones, making it difficult to accurately monitor sound levels.

Everything is linked in the mobile journalism world. You choose a handset and you choose the accessories that come with it. And if you choose an Apple handset, you know that at some point you’re going to be changing everything.

“I’ve got (frames) for the 6,” says Ivo Burum, an Australian mobile journalism trainer. “I’ve got them for the 5, for the 4. I’ve got 20 at home I won’t use anymore.  It’s restrictive to the phone.

“I think we got to this point where we had specific gear for specific phones and that’s where we got into trouble. What I look for now is universality and stuff that will work even when the form of the phone changes.”

But there’s the rub: Most of the high-end, professional-level gear is not adjustable. It’s easier to make frames adjustable than it is to make electronic accessories more accessible. But there’s not much choice: If you buy Apple, you’re locked into its hardware regime. 

“It reminds me of the optometrist in the town I grew up in,” says Bernhard Lill, a Hamburg, Germany-based mobile trainer. “You would go in and he would look at your face and go in the back and come back with two frames and say, ‘These are the frames that suit your face.’ And you’d say, “But I want a third frame. I want a choice.’ And he would say, ‘No, I will only show you two frames and if you don’t like that, you can leave.’ And people lined up and bought like crazy. That’s Apple. They say, ‘We know what’s best for you.’”

Judd Slivka  
 
Assistant Professor of Convergence Journalism



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