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Tale of two companies

Is the tech industry darling's shift away from the headphone jack ground-breaking or money-making?

Read time 5min 20sec

The way I see it, reactions to Apple's decision to "go jackless" with its newest iteration of the iPhone fall into two schools of thought: the ground-breakers and the money-makers.

Allow me to unpack this theory.

At the beginning of September, when Apple introduced the iPhone 7 to the world, sans headphone jack, Phil Schiller, the marketing chief of the world's most valuable brand, described the decision like this: "It really comes down to one word: courage. The courage to move on, do something new, that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage."

The ground-breakers are the guys who agree with Schiller. They're the ones who believe the headphone jack omission serves as the most recent example of how ingenious Apple is, and always has been, and dubbing the move to evolve this century-old technology as technological progression. And if you ask me, this crowd does plead a rather convincing case.

One early example of this "courage" came when the first Macintosh computer made its debut in 1984. The Mac was introduced to the world with a level of pomposity that has become synonymous with Apple, and its controversial founder, the late Steve Jobs.

The advert created to promote the first mass-market personal computer was screened during the Super Bowl, it cost close to $1 million to make (which was unheard of at the time) and was directed by Ridley Scott.

The commercial depicts the Macintosh as a saviour, storming in to rescue humanity from an Orwellian dystopia characterised by mundanity and conformity. A rather bold claim at the time but more than three decades later, few can deny the first Mac changed the face of personal computing forever.

Apple continued this trailblazer metaphor when it released the iPod in 2001 and totally revolutionised music. Evolving on what Sony had done with the Walkman, the Apple iPod made it possible for people to carry around their entire music collection and to seamlessly sync their music library with their device.

Several years later, Apple did it again with the iPhone. This device laid out a challenge for established mobile players by creating a smart gadget that may have been more pricy than the alternatives but offered consumers something different from everything else, running on a unique operating system.

And just last year, it further established its air of exclusivity when people had to book an appointment to get a glimpse of Apple's first foray into the wearable space, the Apple Watch.

And then we have the money-makers

In 1979, Steve Jobs took a walk in the PARC. Xerox PARC to be exact. And it was during this visit to the research centre that Jobs, then a twenty-something, witnessed a demonstration of what the Xerox Alto personal computer could do - navigating between "windows", selecting icons and moving a cursor using one of the earliest iterations of a "mouse". This mouse was rather bulky and cost about $300.

The reality of the modern technology industry is that one brand's failure, is another's fortune.

The legend in tech circles suggests it was this visit that inspired much of the hardware and software that made up the iconic Macintosh computer discussed above. But does this amount to stealing? Or did Jobs simply take a complicated and clunky concept and transform it into something that would be more palatable for the mass market? The money-makers would argue for the former.

They believe Apple dropping the jack has nothing to do with courage and is, in fact, motivated by another C-word - cash. And they too have rather a valid argument.

They contest that the removal of the headphone jack simply serves companies that produce Bluetooth headphones. Lucky for us, Apple accompanied the introduction of the jackless iPhone 7 with an announcement that it had created its very own Apple wireless headphones, called AirPods, which will set you back about R2 000. And lest we forget that Apple just so happens to own the world's number one Bluetooth headphone company, Beats. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

Some have suggested that Schiller's choice of words was an homage to Jobs; echoing comments he made in 2010: "We're trying to make great products for people, and we have at least the courage of our convictions to say we don't think this is part of what makes a great product, we're going to leave it out."

So who's right? Is Apple looking to push the boundaries beyond what we've all become so accustomed to, or is this its latest effort to lock consumers into an exclusive ecosystem and charge them a tidy premium at every turn? Are Apple's moves masquerading as innovative when actually they're motivated by the company's desire to add more money to its already rather sizable war chest?

I reckon, it's a bit of both. I'd hazard that Apple is actually a ground-breaking money-maker. I don't think its actions are more sinister than any other business out there - isn't the goal of any successful multinational to come up with clever ways to make money and keep consumers coming back for more? Isn't that what makes them successful in the first place? And at times, this means veering away from the status quo.

The reality of the modern technology industry is that one brand's failure, is another's fortune. Libraries have lost out to the Internet as society's go-to source for information. Manufacturers have replaced the human element in their assembly lines with automated processes. And entire industries have been disrupted by a single app.

The tech space is fickle - things come and go, industries rise and fall; leaving little room for today's market leaders to sit back and keep doing what they're doing with the hope that they'll still be relevant in years to come.

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