A Realistic Look At The Death of A Standard

A bit ago I wrote an article called, “Death To The 3.5mm Audio Jack, Long Live Wireless.” A few readers were with me, a few were indifferent, many were vehemently against me, and there was a, not insubstantial, subset in a pure panic about the potential retirement of a beloved connector. Now I used a lot of opinionated language dispersed with subjectively evaluated facts to make a case that the connector is out. Not today maybe, but there is certainly a tomorrow not so far off where there are more wireless headsets at the electronics store than wired ones.

I think I saw a laserdisc player in operation exactly once.
I think I saw a Laserdisc player in operation exactly once.

So what happens when a standard dies? What happens when technology starts to move on? Let’s take a look at the CD-ROM. 

Two years ago I gave away my last stack of DVD-Rs. Of course, by gave away I mean, guiltily stashed in the hackerspace boneyard. Just in case there was a member with a stronger spirit who could actually throw them away.

I hadn’t needed a DVD-R in years. I maybe put one DVD or CD in my computer a year. Note, I had purchased a computer just a year earlier with a very strong feeling that a DVD reader was an absolutely necessity. I mean, my first computer, a 200MHz Pentium MMX, had a CD-ROM tray. To me, it just wasn’t a computer unless it had one. I was already loathe to give up my serial port and parallel port from my old laptop. How would I control the CNC machine I didn’t own anymore? USB? Please. They had changed the keyboard and ruined the mouse. Like hell I would compromise on this.

Dropbox happened. Cheap thumb drives happened. SD Cards happened. It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a DVD drive. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering and a world standard that can read a whole history of formats. I just don’t use it anymore. The technology caught up and then overtook it. My next laptop will not waste space, power, and weight on a disk drive. Why should it?

The Premise

Let’s assume that today is declared the death of the CD-ROM and optical disk format in the way that we know it. No longer will a printer come with a little envelope with an outdated driver. No longer will your IT guy carry around that disgustingly greasy cracked leather binder full of disks around. It’s dead today. Officially, It would be 58 years old.

What would this mean? Would this mean that aliens come down and take it all away? That I’ll wake up tomorrow and there will just be smooth plastic where my disk drive was today? No. There will still be a company somewhere making disks. There will still be an OEM jamming it into a crevice somewhere. It would still be around for the foreseeable future. Just no one would be expected to use it. It’s an oddity and a relic.

The fourth iteration is air.
The fourth iteration is air.

Standards die hard. Standards die slow. Some never entirely die. In 2002 it was still standard to put a floppy drive in a computer, in 2007 only 2% of the computers made had them, in 2016 Microsoft neglected to put a floppy disk driver into the standard install. There’s no reason to lament this development. It’s done. Even hobbyists emulate the drive now if they want it. 

As of today the 3.5 mm audio jack, in one form or another, has been around for nearly 138 years. That’s 80 years longer than our theoretical demise of the optical disk drive. What are the chances that it will be replaced overnight? What are the chances that next year there will not be a single device which offers the world’s most popular connector? Really really close to zero.

Not With a Bang

I honestly do think the audio jack is out. In thirty years most portable devices won’t have one. However, I’d be surprised if in thirty years it was anywhere near death. I mean, it’s the standard. It works. If we don’t blow ourselves up I wouldn’t be surprised if it stuck around for another hundred years before trickling off.

Behold! The Ericsson T36, the first phone to support bluetooth!
Behold! The Ericsson T36, the first phone to support Bluetooth!

So how will it die? Well, the same way every tech gets replaced. First there will be some technology that absolutely sucks initially but has potential to supersede the existing player. For example, the first mobile phone with Bluetooth support came out in 2000, a single Bluetooth enabled hands-free car speaker came out the next year. I pity the person that bought that first model. It must have been absolutely atrocious.

Now fast forward to today. It’s been 16 years since that first phone. We are on Bluetooth 4.0+ and every single phone has the ability to connect. Bluetooth 5.0 has just been announced and promises 50 Mbits of bandwidth, that’s an order of magnitude more bandwidth than CD quality audio needs. There are almost no laptops left where the technology is optional. There’s a small market that’s been building since 2000 around wireless headsets, car audio, and earphones.  What’s next?

Well, a company has to say, we are not putting a disk drive in our laptop. In this case it’s our favorite fruit-themed corporation to hate on. It makes sense for them to do it. It is not wrong to propose that they alone have the most impressive manufacturing capability in the world. They own more CNC machines than anyone else. If anyone can force a technology, it’s this one tech giant. If there’s anyone that can afford to make a bet, it’s them.

When a company does something like this the end has begun. It’s a slow end, but it’s started. It would not be a bet worth taking to see if Samsung has at least one exploratory phone model in their extensive 2017 line without a jack in it. It will be a good one and they’ll have a nearly equivalent model right beside it. Will consumers care? Will it matter? Will they make a boatload of money off Bluetooth headphones?

One day simba, everything you see before you will be truly obsolete. Except for the keyboard and mouse. I swear, if you take that from me I'm joining the grumps.
One day Simba, everything you see before you will be obsolete.

More important questions. Is the service rate lower? Does the phone have a higher customer satisfaction? They will look at this data and think. The next year a few other phone manufacturers will try it. People don’t really mind the dongle. It’s annoying but it’s okay. They don’t really like the charging.

Maybe Bose makes a set of premium headphones that can go two days on a charge. Practically everything still supports the 3.5 mm jack. A few years pass until a few users find themselves with a laptop that has Bluetooth, a car that has Bluetooth, and a phone that has Bluetooth. They already invested in the headphones, so they use their corded set a little less each year. The next time they lose a pair they buy another Bluetooth pair. They’re a small small segment of the market but they’ve bought their last pair of corded phones without even knowing it.

Fast forward ten years or so. Maybe 25% of the consumers out there have phased out of the corded headphone. There’s a real market for wireless and most manufacturers are putting out really nice pairs. With such a large market a lot of the niggling issues have been worked out. Pairing is fast. Cross talk and interference is low. Bluetooth 8.0 has more bandwidth than audio will ever require. Battery technology has moved along and the phones run quite a while. It’s officially nicer to have a Bluetooth headset than a wired one.

After that the standard begins to disappear. It’s not sudden. It’s not sad. It’s just that the wireless option will have shown itself to be better. No one will mind. Maybe twenty years later laptops don’t come with it anymore. Phones don’t have it, but expensive audio equipment might. Mission critical stuff like helicopter headsets will use the traditional jack (where they don’t use mil spec bayonet connectors). ATMs and museums will have it. Airplanes will offer them.

Maybe fifty years from now the headphone as we know it will be reduced to that weird bin at the thrift store, but it won’t be tomorrow. It won’t even be ten years from now. Standards die slow. Who knows, maybe the market will speak and the iPhone 8 will have the jack again. Regardless, I just bought wired headphones last year. I’ll be really upset if they don’t plug into my next phone!


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