Headphone makers will be wary of Apple's Lightning audio pitch

They remember Apple yanking the 30-pin business out from under speaker dock makers

Apple will find it difficult to convince headset manufacturers to switch to a Lightning port for audio, an analyst argued today.

"Headphones have a wide footprint in hardware," said Stephen Baker of the NPD Group. "People don't just use them with smartphones, they don't use just with Apple's products. They use headphones with any smartphone, any TV, any computer."

Baker was referring to news last week that Apple had told hardware makers and developers that iOS 8 would support a new "Lightning headphone module" that would let manufacturers move digital audio into iPhones and iPads through its Lightning power port rather than through the analog-only 3.5-mm. headphone jack that the devices also sport.

By using the Lightning port, headphones could not only receive -- and if a microphone was attached, also send -- digital audio, but they could draw power from the device, a boon for noise-canceling headphones that require a power source, typically a battery. The connection would also allow apps like iTunes or specialized ones crafted by the manufacturer itself, to control the headphones, or when a cable's inserted into the port, automatically launch a designated app, such as Beats Music, iTunes or Spotify.

During a session at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple briefly spelled out some ways headset manufacturers could use the connector.

"This is a module that breaks out analog audio for you ... and connects straight into the Lightning connector on your iOS devices," said Robert Walsh, the manager of Apple's platform accessories, during a June 3 developer session at WWDC, which Apple has made public as an audio-only recording. "It also provides a digital interface ... so you can offer richer controls for your users, such as integration with iTunes Radio. The Lightning connector is [also] capable of powering your accessories so you don't need batteries in your headphones, for example, to power your noise cancellation."

Some pundits took the opening of the Lightning connector to mean Apple is planning on eliminating the standard 3.5-mm. audio jack, just as the company had previously tossed out other then-standard components, like the 3.5-in. floppy disk drive, and more recently, the optical drive.

No one expects Apple to do so immediately, nor did Apple hint at such a move. In fact, during the WWDC session Walsh reiterated support for the 3.5-mm. headphone jack in iOS 8.

But over time, the theories went, Apple would eventually omit the analog jack to save space in its devices -- particularly the space-cramped iPhone.

Baker thought that would be a tough task, and cited as evidence sales figures for iPhone/iPod docks and sound systems before and after Apple replaced its long-used 30-pin power connector with Lightning. The Cupertino, Calif. company did the switcheroo in 2012 with the introduction of the iPhone 5, and has used Lightning in its mobile devices -- iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch -- since.

Some Apple customers were angry at the change, viewing their accessories as suddenly obsolete, because they would have to replace them when next they upgraded their iPhones.

Accessories makers weren't happy either, said Baker. In the 12 months before April 2012, docking speakers that relied on the 30-pin connector, and catered primarily to Apple device owners, were a $650 million business in the U.S. Two years later, for the 12 months prior to April 2014, sales of that category had plunged by more than half to just $300 million.

Rather than revamp their hardware to support the new connector, many manufacturers instead shifted to wireless, mostly Bluetooth, knowing that was a universal standard. In those same two 12-month spans, U.S. sales of streaming speakers jumped from just $200 million in 2011-2012 to $1.1 billion in 2013-2014, Baker said.

"They said, 'We're not going to trust Apple again, we can't depend on them,'" Baker contended.

The "fool me once, shame on me" attitude -- along with the wide application of headphones on all kinds of devices, not just Apple's -- made Baker believe that Cupertino would have a very difficult job convincing manufacturers to support Lightning at the expense of the 3.5-mm. standard.

"I think it would probably be harder for them to pull off this in that space," said Baker. "Because headphones connect with so many different kinds of products, I think it's likely to be more difficult for Apple to impose their will."

But Apple really won't have to, others argued. Once the $3 billion Beats Electronics acquisition closes, Apple will be able to trot out headphones of its own that use Lightning. Then, if others want in, they would be at a disadvantage, price-wise, because they'd have to pay licensing and royalty fees to enter Apple's MFi (Made For...) program, while Apple/Beats would not.

That would be a long-term play, not unusual for Apple, and if ultimately successful -- most probably because Apple/Beats hammered home the point that digital audio sounds better -- it could force others, both accessories and rival handset makers, to join the Lightning ecosystem.

Baker remained skeptical. "Actually, Apple's change [from 30-pin to Lightning] was a boom for accessories," he said, about manufacturers forced to discard their Apple tunnel vision. The billion-dollar wireless speaker business was the result.

And accessories makers are not likely to forget that.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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