How Apple Created Entirely New Product Categories by Allowing a Tiny Bit of Freedom

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 17, 2012

From The News Desk

There are only so many ways to interact with the iPhone. Apple has dictated how each and every input method works – the ring/silent switch always turns the ringer on or off, the lock button locks the screen or takes a screenshot, and (until Apple "borrowed" an input method from Camera+) the volume buttons always change the device's volume or snap a photo. Simple. There is one input method that Apple has given developers a surprising amount of leeway to work with, though: sound.

For many of us, a headphone jack is just a headphone jack. We plug our headphones (or, soon, our "EarPods" – blech) into the 3.5mm jack, shove the 'buds into our ears, and start rocking'. The same goes for the iPhone's microphones – unless we're on a call, most of us don't think about the fact that we have a device that could listen to our entire lives sitting in our front pockets.

Before we bust out the tin-foil hats and start covering the windows with newspapers, however, I want to take a look at the (non-creepy) ways some developers have taken advantage of this oft-forgotten input method.

Say "accessory that plugs into the iPhone's headphone jack" and most people will think of one thing: the Square Card Reader. Spotted everywhere from a Valley coffee shop to a New York pedicab, the Card Reader makes almost no sense on the surface. If you had asked 100 people how to add a credit card reader to the iPhone, I can almost guarantee that not a single one of them would have said "well, the headphone jack looks like it might work." Cofounder Jim McKelvey highlighted an issue with repurposing the headphone jack to transmit credit card data to Geeklist's Reuben Katz, saying:

“The very first Square reader I built had a brushed aluminum housing - I though it would look cool.  It worke[d] OK, but only in my hands.  Jack couldn’t get the thing to work.  The difference it turned out was that I didn’t touch the reader whereas Jack would stabilize the thing with his hand.  The aluminum, being conductive, was picking up his heartbeat.  This combo reader/cardiac monitor was eventually replaced by plastic. “
Shifting to plastic seems to have worked, as the company announced this morning that it processes $8 billion on an annualized basis, and has closed an "over $200 million" Series D round at a $3.25 billion valuation, according to AllThingsD. (As an aside, one has to wonder how the company plans on accommodating the iPhone 5's headphone jack, which is at the bottom of the device. I can imagine either having to hold the device upside down or continually hitting myself in the wrist trying to swipe a card as-is.)

Other products, such as the iRig guitar connector, utilize the headphone jack as well. Peripherals that would have been unable to connect to the iPhone in any other way have found solace in that 3.5mm hole, transforming a tool primarily used for listening to music into a tool for creating music and simplifying payments. The headphone jack isn't the only sound-based input method that has been repurposed by developers – and Apple itself – however. The microphones have been tinkered with as well.

I was first made aware of the fact that developers could repurpose microphones by Apple itself. The GarageBand iOS applications are able to replicate a variety of instruments, but perhaps none are as fun to "play" as the virtual drum kits. Apple made a big deal of the fact that the drum kits are able to respond to the striking finger's velocity and change the corresponding note accordingly. In order to do so, the application "listens" to the tap of your finger on the iPad's screen, creating a sort of faux pressure sensitivity that, amazingly enough, works.

HEX3, an iPhone and iPad accessory maker, has also repurposed the microphone.  Its JaJa stylus uses high frequency audio to communicate desired pressure with compatible apps. The company could have used Bluetooth to achieve a similar result, but CEO Jon Atherton says that going the audio route allows the stylus to hold a longer charge.

Apple is known for the control it exerts over how users and developers can interact with its devices. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Apple has denied developers any meaningful access to nearly every button or switch on the iPhone except, for some reason, the headphone jack and microphones. Whether this is meant to be a concession to accessory makers or simply a clever way to have people use their iPhone's microphone without knowing it (because, let's be honest, nobody uses an iPhone as a phone anymore), at least one company sitting on a multi-billion dollar valuation that's glad for the exception.

[Image courtesy Dazzle D]