Apple’s decision to ship its new iPhone 7 without a traditional headphone jack continues to baffle consumers and pundits alike. The new iPhone is instead using the Lightning port for both charging and headphone listening, forcing consumers to either get an adapter for their existing headphones, or instead use the included ear buds, which won’t work with anything else.
The omission of the headphone jack has been decried as arrogance, and it didn’t exactly help that the company’s SVP of marketing Phil Schiller described it as courageous, saying on stage at Apple’s press event Wednesday that it was doing “something new that betters all of us.”
On a more serious note, Apple executives have argued that ditching the headphone port allowed them to make the iPhone more durable and waterproof, while also giving more space for additional sensors. Critics haven’t been buying these reasons either. After all, hasn’t Samsung built waterproof phones that also come with a headphone jack?
So why did Apple really do it? There’s at least one more reason that hasn’t really been mentioned yet. What if having an iPhone without a headphone jack was setting Apple up to introduce its own virtual reality (VR) headset?
Just consider the user experience with existing mobile VR headsets. Both Gear VR and Google Cardboard require users to bring their own headphones, which adds another cord to something that was supposed to be completely untethered.
The bring-your-own-headphones approach also makes mobile VR feel even more like a piecemeal solution. Some users are even deciding not to use a headphone at all, which then puts the producers of VR experience in a bind: How much can they rely on audio cues to advance their stories that the user may not even be hearing?
Apple on the other hand is known for wanting to control the entire experience. If the company was to build a mobile VR headset to work with its iPhone, it would likely include integrated headphones, and not require its users to fidget with extra plugs and cords. The most logical approach for that is to use the Lightning port for audio, and not even give users a choice to plug anything else in.
In other words: Using the Lightning port for audio may make the iPhone 7 compatible with possible future VR hardware, while at the same time conditioning the user to expect an integrated experience.
Granted, all of this is purely speculative. We don’t know whether Apple is building a VR headset or not, and likely won’t until the company is ready to launch. What we do know is that Apple has patents for such technology, and invested heavily in VR and AR tech and talent through a number of acquisitions.
We also know that Apple CEO Tim Cook has expressed his support for VR on numerous occasions, telling analysts earlier this year: “I don’t think it’s a niche. It’s really cool and has some interesting applications.”
All of this still wouldn’t exactly make the decision to ship the iPhone 7 without a headphone jack courageous — but at least it would make a lot more sense.