A theory connecting the dropped headphone jack, Mac hardware, HomeKit, and Bluetooth 5

July 7, 2016

Apple's hardware lineup is in a bit of a weird state at the moment. Nearly every Mac is due for a refresh, and the most notable rumor about the next iPhone is that it's going to drop the headphone jack, which doesn't sound like an improvement.

Jason Snell of Six Colors wrote a good takedown piece describing why none of the potential reasons for the headphone jack's removal are good enough, and says this about wireless headphones:

Wireless is the future! Bluetooth is great! I own a set of Bluetooth headphones, and they’re fine. Wireless headphones have to be charged, which is a complication wired headphones don’t suffer from. Bluetooth is problematic. It’s complex to pair, connect, and disconnect headphones. And even now, I have weird audio issues with Bluetooth connections both on my headphones and in my car, where the sound drops out or has a strange clicking or ticking noise until I turn my iPhone’s Bluetooth off and on.

Among many other podcasts and articles, Episode 159 of The Talk Show echoes this sentiment (around 1:00:19), with John Gruber wondering aloud why Apple is choosing to make the transition this year rather than next year when the iPhone gets a new physical design.

There's one potential reason that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere which could explain both the timing of the headphone jack's removal and the current Mac hardware lull. It's a bit presumptive and reminds me of my days complaining about AirPlay Direct, but there could be something to it.

I think the next iPhone may be the first smartphone to include Bluetooth 5, with a compelling selection of reliable wireless earbuds and Beats headphones ready to purchase at launch. New Bluetooth 5 mesh networking features would allow those headphones and other devices to more easily switch between Mac/iOS devices (like Handoff) while laying the groundwork for new Internet of Things (IoT) products to strengthen Apple's HomeKit ecosystem going into 2017.

The next iPhone could be the first smartphone to include Bluetooth 5

There's some precedent for this to happen. Bluetooth 4.0 was completed in early 2010, and the iPhone 4S was the first smartphone to include it in October 2011, with Android devices (and Macs) catching up in early 2012. Accessory-makers took a while to make anything that was Bluetooth 4.0-compatible, however, so the iPhone's inclusion of it felt a bit premature.

The Verge, December 2011:

We're told that Apple wants to see a new wave of app-based accessories using the new Bluetooth Low Energy profile in Bluetooth 4.0, with a particular focus on next-generation health and fitness gadgets like the FitBit Ultra and Jawbone Up....

Unfortunately we don't have a timeline for any of this stuff, but we get the feeling it'll be a while before it comes to fruition: the iPhone 4S is currently Apple's only iOS product with Bluetooth 4.0, and vendors are just getting protocol information on some of these new features now.

It was a nice forward-looking inclusion, but Apple and others didn't capitalize on Bluetooth 4.0's benefits until much later with new low-energy fitness devices and the Apple Watch (which didn't even end up supporting the iPhone 4S).

In November of last year we started hearing that the next generation of Bluetooth would have 4 times the range, twice the speed, and support mesh networking to eliminate the need for a central IoT "hub". Bluetooth 5 (the most marketable name the spec has had in a while) was formally announced on June 16th and slated for late-2016 to early-2017 with a heavy emphasis on its IoT benefits, including this interesting line:

With the major boost in broadcast messaging capacity, the data being transferred will be richer, more intelligent. This will redefine the way Bluetooth devices transmit information, moving away from the app-paired-to-device model to a connectionless IoT where there is less need to download an app or connect the app to a device.

Although the timetable for Bluetooth 5 to be included in the next iPhone is seemingly much shorter than Bluetooth 4.0, as a member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) I suspect Apple has had access to the new tech for a while now. Reading the description above, iOS 10's inclusion of a new all-in-one Home app and Control Center widget along with HomeKit updates seem to be particularly well-timed with Bluetooth 5's release, and the mesh networking capabilities and extended range of Bluetooth 5 could explain why it would be beneficial to synchronize the iPhone's release with updated Mac hardware - particularly if Apple is planning to release some kind of Amazon Echo competitor in the near future.

Beats-branded Bluetooth 5 headphones and earbuds could be ready to ship, and actually be decent

Although Bluetooth 5's announcement doesn't explicitly state that connections are more reliable, the quadrupled range and halved latency lead me to think that's the case. Imagine for a moment that this is finally the year that Bluetooth becomes frictionless, due in part to Apple's close shepherding of its development since Bluetooth 4.0. To avoid another false start and capitalize on being the first to introduce the new tech, they acquired Beats in 2014 not only to bolster Apple Music, but also to ensure that they would have a compelling line of high-margin Bluetooth 5 headphones and earbuds to sell at the launch of 2016's iPhone and Macs. The rumored new EarPods and completely wireless "AirPods" could be the result of that strategic decision to align with Bluetooth 5's launch.

If that's what Apple is planning to do, their recent summertime Back to School special offers also make sense. Apple used to bundle iPods before they were refreshed in September to help clear stock, and I suspect they may be doing the same with Beats' headphones. Last summer Apple offered a pair of wired Beats headphones with the purchase of a new Mac, and then culled Beats' wired headphones a few months later in January. This summer their promotion is a bit better; offering wireless headphones with the purchase of a new Mac and wireless earbuds with the purchase of a new iPhone or iPad Pro. If Apple/Beats is planning to introduce significantly better wireless headphones soon, this latest special offer seems like a good way of making shelf space.

A theoretical best-case scenario

From Jason Snell's headphone jack piece again:

Is it the right time to ditch the headphone jack? It doesn’t feel like that to me, but it’s arguable. The replacements—Lightning via an adapter or Bluetooth—don’t seem like clearly better options that solve problems in the current technology that’s making consumers restless and uneasy.

There's no question that Apple's going to get flak for dropping the headphone jack in the next iPhone, but if this pet theory is correct and Bluetooth 5 is finally good enough, this year may actually be the best time to transition people to wireless. By the time next year's all-new iPhone comes out, people will already have Bluetooth 5 accessories and lightning-connected headphones ready to go, with no headphone jack controversy tainting the iPhone 7's launch.

During Apple's iPhone keynote I would expect the IoT and HomeKit benefits of Bluetooth 5's mesh network capabilities to be explained quite a bit, emphasizing that the iPhone is the first device to include the new technology. At some point they'll have to explain the lack of a headphone jack, and assuming Bluetooth 5 is more reliable, I expect them to introduce new Bluetooth 5-based Beats and Apple-branded wireless headphones that "just work" the way we always hoped they would. Switching between devices would behave like Handoff and be doable within Control Center, and the connection wouldn't drop through walls as easily thanks to the new mesh capability and improved range. Pairing or switching the new headphones could also be done quickly by tapping them to the NFC area of the iPhone, like Apple Pay. The "Bluetooth 5" branding (which I wouldn't be surprised if Apple suggested) would be pushed heavily during the keynote as the next big thing to look for in wireless headphones, and new Apple/Beats hardware would be ready to purchase on day 1.

I suspect that Lighting-connected EarPods - not wireless - will be included in the next iPhone's box. For seemingly the vast majority of people, those earbuds with a built-in mic and controls are good enough and are typically only used with the iPhone anyway. An adapter won't be included, but will be available for people who want to continue using their own earbuds/headphones without "upgrading" to Bluetooth 5 accessories from Apple or Beats.


From what I can quickly google, Broadcom - Apple's supplier for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips - hasn't announced any hardware that supports Bluetooth 5 yet. Before Bluetooth 4.0 was included in the iPhone 4S in October of 2011, Broadcom had already written press releases in February and May for new chips that were compatible. The lack of hardware is a bit surprising considering Bluetooth 5's press release says to expect compatible devices this year, so I'd expect Broadcom to make an announcement pretty soon if they're going to meet that schedule (unless Apple is keeping them quiet for now).

I'm also not very confident that Bluetooth 5 will be as great as the press release says it'll be. As John Gruber notes, reliable Bluetooth has long-been something that's just around the corner but never ends up meeting expectations. Bluetooth 5's mesh networking sounds interesting and will theoretically herald a new generation of IoT devices, but so far Apple's HomeKit has been primarily Wi-Fi based, which has always seemed to be more stable than Bluetooth.

Even if Bluetooth 5 is great and all of the pairing and connection issues are figured out, there's still the annoyance of charging accessories. The AirPods rumor mentioned a chargeable carrying case, but listening to music while charging would still be difficult or impossible. Extended range wireless charging is a sci-fi-sounding possibility that might be included in the 2017 iPhone and other accessories, but that still wouldn't help when you're on a bus or outside the range of a transmitter.

We'll see how things actually play out in September, but if Bluetooth 5 ends up happening and Apple/Beats is ready to sell nice-looking, highly-reliable Bluetooth headphones on day 1, I think the sting of the headphone jack's removal could be dulled a bit. If not, things will be pretty painful for a while.