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ProBeat: Google did not learn from Apple’s headphone jack removal

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I was pissed off in August when my colleague Evan Blass revealed this year’s Pixels would not have a headphone jack. It’s October, and I’m pissed off now, as indeed the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL don’t have a headphone jack. Google has made a calculated mistake.

Yes, I know, the headphone jack isn’t going to be around forever — technology moves forward at a blistering pace — and other manufacturers have followed Apple’s lead. But companies like Samsung made a point to keep the headphone jack.

Why? Because users don’t want to lose the hardware functionality for a miniscule saving in size and weight. The tradeoff is not worth it. It’s not like Bluetooth headphones work better in a device without a headphone jack.

I’m purposefully not calling Apple’s decision a mistake. I believe Apple made a strategic decision to remove the headphone jack three years after buying a headphone company and the same year it launched wireless earbuds.

But that doesn’t mean that Apple executed its plan perfectly. Users were pissed. The year that followed saw iPhone sales stall — not just because of the headphone jack removal, of course, but it certainly didn’t help with those already on the fence about buying an iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus.

Google saw all this and somehow failed to learn the right lesson. The company concluded that it would be a good idea to copy Apple’s walled garden strategy, despite that it did not recently buy a headphone company, nor does it have a successful phone business.

Here is Google’s statement on the matter:

We want to provide a little more information about headphone options for the Pixel 2. The Pixel 2 still comes with a headphone jack but we have moved to USB-C, a standard that is becoming commonplace in the best phones and laptops of today. Moving to the USB-C audio port with Pixel 2 allows us to provide a better audio and digital experience, as we move towards a bezel-less future.

We realize that some of you might be looking for USB-C headphones, and we want to provide some guidance around headphone compatibility with Pixel 2 devices. The main thing to keep in mind is that Pixel 2 devices are compatible with USB-C headphones that support digital audio.

Google then goes on to list 21 pairs of approved headphones, including the Google Pixel Buds. Yes, just 21 pairs that are approved for the Pixel 2.

Google should have waited. At the absolute very least, the company should have kept the headphone jack for at least another year.

Maybe next year all major flagships won’t have a headphone jack, and removing the headphone jack from the Pixel 3 wouldn’t look like you’re trying to push wireless earbuds, like Apple does.

Maybe the couple of thousand HTC engineers you just hired could have come up with a better solution for the Pixel 3 than including a 3.5mm to USB-C headphone adapter in the box, like Apple does.

Maybe the Google Pixel Buds will be so revolutionary and you’ll improve on them enough in the second generation to include them in the Pixel 3 box, instead of selling earbuds separately, like Apple does.

But Google did not wait.

Google decided it could just blindly copy Apple in this regard and everything would work out. It won’t.

Apple sells millions of iPhones every quarter, while Google is lucky to sell a million Pixels in a few quarters. The two companies are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

The iPhone has years of momentum and brand allegiance. The company can afford to remove a useful feature and know that millions of iPhone owners will either happily buy, or begrudgingly upgrade to, the next one.

Google only last year dropped the Nexus brand in favor of Pixel. And 2017 was just like every year before it: Samsung and Apple on top, while Google doesn’t even register on the charts.

Pixel sales are abysmal. Why give potential buyers another reason to say no? Here’s what potential Pixel 2 owners are thinking.

Android user: “Oh, it’s priced in line with all the other flagships but doesn’t have a headphone jack? OK, let me take a closer look at Samsung’s and LG’s offerings again.”

iPhone user: “Oh, it also doesn’t have a headphone jack? OK, maybe sticking with Apple isn’t so bad.”

If you want an iOS phone, your only option is Apple. If you want an Android phone, you have plenty of great options, including many with a headphone jack.

Google is trying to carve out its own path in mobile phones. The company is doing plenty to stand out, including filling Google Assistant with awesome features and breaking new ground with its smartphone camera.

Removing the headphone jack when you don’t have to is screwing all that up.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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