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Why Apple's New Cordless Headphones Matter, Legally

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 14, 2016 12:02 PM

Apple unveiled the new iPhone 7 last week and while the newest iteration of the smartphone isn't reinventing the wheel, it is making some small changes. Chief among them: Apple is dropping its headphone jack. That means that if you want to listen to music on your iPhone, you'll have to use Bluetooth headphones called AirPods that sit, cordlessly, in your ear, or get more traditional, cord-based headphones that hook up with the iPhone's Lightning charger, instead of a headphone jack.

But the change isn't just about aesthetics or performance or cords. It's also a shrewd legal move on Apple's part.

So Much for That New Headset You Bought

When the new iPhone, and its AirPods, were announced, reactions were mixed. Some noted that the loss of the headphone jack gives Apple more space for hardware, allowing the phone to be faster and lighter than before. And one less hole in the phone's casing means that the new iPhone will be more resistant to water.

Many in the public were less supportive, though. Some lamented that they would lose their AirPods within days, if not hours, since there's no cord wrangling them together. Others complained that the loss of the headphone jack would make it impossible to hook their sound systems, car stereos, or expensive headphones into the new iPhone. The same is true if you have iPhone add-ons like a Square credit card reader, which connects to the phone through the headphone jack.

Those products will now be useless without the purchase of an adapter.

From an Open Source to a Proprietary One

But there's a reason Apple isn't worried that you'll have to throw out your aux cables and old headphones and Square readers. In fact, it wants you to. That's because the new jack-less iPhone gives Apple much greater control over what people can do with the phone, by replacing an open standard design with a proprietary one.

See, the 3.5mm jack that Apple (and pretty much everyone else) used for audio connections is what's known as an "open standard." That is, pretty much anyone can use it and design for it, so that any company can make a headphone, or credit card reader, or speaker set that uses the jack, and those products can be connected across many different devices.

Apple's Lightning standard, however, is proprietary. That means that if developers want to make products that connect with the new, jack-less iPhone, they'll now have to pay Apple licensing fees. And Since iPhones make up a large share of the smartphone market, many developers will pay those fees.

But while Apple's move solidifies its control over iPhone accessories and helps bring in some extra licensing cash, it's still not clear whether consumers will embrace their jack-free future or move to different, more cord-friendly smartphones.

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