What makes a good smartphone?
Early hand-axes created by Homo Erectus. Like smartphones, their users cared only if they worked—and threw them out if they didn’t.
Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this. When you want to do something that can’t be accomplished by just your words or hands, humans use tools. Tools to eat, tools to create, tools to destroy—we rely on the use of machines to accomplish most of the tasks we set out to accomplish in a day, and that’s how it’s been for millennia. Tools are an extension of the human experience at this point, and it’s no wonder: we simply can’t reach the heights we’re at now without mechanical help.
A full 2.5 million years after the first tools created by Australopithecus garhi, our tools perform stupendously complicated tasks—often thousands at once. While the capabilities of our tools have exploded past the wildest dreams of our early ancestors, the core metric by which we assess their quality hasn’t: Do they perform their task well? If the tool you hold in your hand can’t perform the function you want it to, it’s the wrong tool for the job… or it’s a bad tool. You don’t use pencils that can’t write, or an air conditioner that can’t cool, right?
Enter the smartphone. In the short time it’s been on Earth, it’s probably one of the most useful and ubiquitous tools humankind has created, second only to the thing that makes it so useful: the internet. The reasons for its success is that it’s a wildly useful tool: over the years, it’s been able to successfully assimilate and murder simpler tools by the dozen by offering them all in one tiny package. The point-and-shoot camera? Dead as hell. The portable DVD player? Murdered in cold blood. The MP3 player? Gone the way of the Dodo.
For better or worse, the ability to get music to your ears in a convenient fashion is now an essential part of what the world thinks a smartphone should do.
It’s that last little item I mentioned that brings us to our problem today. While the smartphone has been able to leverage its ability to stream massive content libraries over its data connection, it hasn’t quite yet provided a perfect alternative to headphones, nor the headphone jack. This is especially important because among 18-29 year olds, 87% of them have used their smartphones to listen to music streaming services in 2015. That number will go up the longer these services are available, and as those same kids age. For better or worse, the ability to get music to your ears in a convenient fashion is now—and will likely always be—an essential part of what the world thinks a smartphone should do. Consequently, a phone that eschews the most-used standard to consume audio also eschews its utility to consumers. It has become the wrong tool for the job: It just doesn’t work.