Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Era Of Stupid Phone Dongles May Be Ending

Nokia N-GageNokia N-Gage
Image via Wikipedia

When I tested the original Nokia N-Gage -- no, stay with me, I swear this will get relevant to the real world -- one of the accessories included was this insane headset with two standard headphone plugs attached to it. For real. I am not entirely sure what the thinking was there, maybe the idea was to finally have a phone you could easily put your own earphones on instead of being confined to expensive accessories that had the manufacturer's proprietary plug. But since standard headphones did not have a microphone, I guess the N-gage needed a second jack to plug the mic into, and therefore the headset accessory in the box was this integrated earbuds / microphone monstrosity that needed two plugs, color-coded so you would know which one to put where. As an accessory it was totally in-line with the N-Gage itself: seemingly based on a sane list of requirements of which the implementation was then completely overthought and overdesigned on a tangent of what was happening in the real world, to then never be validated by the target audience before release. "Innovative shape optimized for gaming, keeps costs down using standard S60 parts, uses cheap standard media, appealing to gamers" turned into side-talking, needing to take a cover off to switch games, load times to get the game off the SD card, and go-faster stripes styling not seen elswhere besides late 80s BMX dirtbikes.

No phone is taken seriously as a music media device unless, through some dongle or by direct design, headphones or earbuds with a standard 3.5mm stereo jack can be used. But that standard plug does not include a way to use a remote control, or a microphone, two things that music phones could always really use. I remember using portable CD player in the early 90s whose remote on the wire worked by emitting little beeps that the player listened to and interpreted, while other devices with wired remotes always had strange plugs. The designers had to compromise.

Well, Apple released an iPod Shuffle yesterday with no buttons on the main device, and migrated the controls to the wire on the headset. Not the first software audio player to do so, but the first one to really need it: the main device is just too small for buttons. Sure you can buy a dongle (this is all sounding awfully familiar) to use your own headphones, and the dongle will cost extra and include the remote on the wire. But the actual jack used is a simple variation of the standard headphone jack, so simple any manufacturer of headphones can copy it (5 rings instead of one: left, right, control, mic, power). And manufacturers now have. Because the Shuffle will sell so many units that making add-on products is not a niche. This jack is now a consumer standard. With microphones as well that will work on other iPods. A new standard that other portable media manufacturers could have set, and simply never did.

Yeah, we may have to buy a stupid dongle from Apple now for our preferred earbuds and headphones, but in a few years we won't because standard earbuds and headphones will have the controls and mics built-in. And almost all other players and phones -- starting with cheap units designed by rock-bottom Chinese outfits who will always eschew proprietary lock-in for cheap availability -- will be made so that those headsets and remotes will work the same too.