Apple apparently removes the headphone jack. Should radio panic?
Sunday 03 July, 2016
Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland
A photograph has been published by tech news websites, apparently showing an updated Apple iPhone without a 3.5mm headphone jack. Does this mean FM radio has lost the battle to get inside the Apple phone?
Most mobile phones have a chip inside them to handle Bluetooth and wifi. Here's one from Broadcom, as one example: and, you'll notice, hidden among the technical specifications is an "FM radio". FM functionality comes with these chips as part of the deal, like the Murata 339S0228 that's in the iPhone 6.
In order for the FM radio on the chip to function, you need two things: the operating system needs to have the software to control it, and you also need a decent antenna.
In Korea, you'll see quite a few mobile phones with little wire antennas. The antennas pop out to allow the in-built DMB receiver - the same thing as DAB elsewhere in the world - to receive live television, which is broadcast all over the place (even in the subway system).
A little antenna works quite well for television, where you need to hold the phone to watch it; but it's a dreadful idea if you want to put the phone in your pocket and keep listening. I have a little portable Samsung device with one of these little antennas: I'm terrified I'll break it every time I use it, and with a little antenna poking out of my pocket when walking around, I'm surprised I'm not arrested.
Most devices use the grounding wire inside your headphones instead as the antenna. You're likely to be listening through your headphones anyway, so it's a mostly transparent solution to the problem of getting enough RF into the phone.
So: Apple might be removing the 3.5mm headphone jack, and wanting you to plug in special headphones into the lightning port that also charges the device. The smart people are saying that Apple will sell the phone with a headphone adaptor anyway: at least initially. But in any case, the lightning cable has a ground wire which you could, theoretically, use as an antenna.
Bluetooth headsets, however, clearly don't connect via a wire: so they're useless as an antenna to help an FM chip inside a phone. So, how big of a threat are these? Forecasts show that 128m Bluetooth headsets will be sold this year. Given that 1.4bn smartphones were sold in 2015, you might claim that 1 in 10 of all smartphone owners will also buy a Bluetooth headset. I'm not too sure - and in my experience, Bluetooth headsets appear an addition, not replacement, to wired earbuds.
But maybe the most important question about radio inside a mobile phone is one that's less to do with technology and more to do with user experience. I'm not sure that live, linear radio is a great experience on a highly interactive device like a mobile phone. If I can't skip a song, flick past an interview or even see anything on the screen except a random frequency, I'm not sure that it's as good as it could be.
In the same way as newspapers don't just put a PDF of each issue online, radio also needs to consider how to refashion its live content to make a great mobile product out of it. As services like NPR One are showing us, you can do much more than just a live stream.
So, while broadcast radio would be nice in the iPhone, if we concentrate on making great content for an interactive mobile experience, Apple's headphone jack will be the least of our worries.
About The Author
James Cridland is a radio futurologist, and is Managing Director of media.info, a companion website to radioinfo and AsiaRadioToday.
James recently moved from North London to Brisbane with his partner and a two year-old radio-loving toddler. He very, very much likes beer.
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