Since Apple’s introduction of the iPhone nearly a decade ago, smartphone design has essentially remained a constant. Change might be nigh, however. Manufacturers are experimenting with modular designs that could drastically expand our phones’ capabilities. While Google’s high-profile Project Ara modular phone seemed to inch close to reality before seemingly evaporating in early September, the expandable Moto-Z is still in the works from Motorola, and the Finnish Puzzlephone remains on the horizon. LG’s semi-modular $500-plus G5 is now shipping.
At the same time, while Apple dismantles the headphone jack, a generation of musicians and audio-minded fans will perhaps be seeking new phones friendlier to their input and output needs, not to mention more flexibility with recording and listening to high-quality audio files.
With the phones of the future on the horizon, we asked a number of hardcore music fans and writers to disregard current limits of hardware, software, and copyright, and envision the ultimate device that a musician or serious fan might want. Last year, Marshall released a music-driven Android-running phone with a dual headphone jacks, double front-facing speakers, a tactile scroll-wheel, a music home button, and other accoutrements, but many possibilities remain. Our imaginary device, if created as a tangible object, perhaps resembles something like a modular edition of the popular Zoom recorder, except with a smartphone touchscreen interface, perhaps crossed with the Homer. In other words, big and thick and not all that pretty.
To some, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the removal of an eighth-inch headphone jack on phones is being seen as a way to continue DRM schemes and push digital audio deeper into a post-MP3 age. Following Apple’s patent to be remotely disable phone cameras, to stop the unauthorized streaming of live shows via Periscope, Mixlr, and other popular services, perhaps even more quickly if the performance is by Drake, Frank Ocean, or another Apple-affiliated artist. To others, the switch from analog jack to digital Lightning connector is no big deal. But either way, the iPhone 7 sees Apple hastening the obsolescence of a global audio standard in use for decades.
For fans and musicians needing to send signals into stereos, amplifiers, effects pedals or even (GASP) recording devices, that analog audio output jack is the easiest way to make that connection. The phone we’re envisioning would certainly have an analog audio port. Even better perhaps, if a phone the thickness of an iPod Classic were acceptable, would be a nested jack that could admit the quarter-inch cables used on outboard musical equipment. Musicians needing to plug in anything like that currently have to use an adaptor or an external interface.
Geeta Dayal, writer, former WIRED staffer, and longtime organizer of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, wishes for a way her phone might interface seamlessly with her 1972 Marantz receiver as well as her high-end headphones. “I’d like a quarter-inch headphone jack so I could plug my Grado SR-125s in directly without an eight-inch adapter,” she says.
But for audiophiles, the traditional headphone jack was only the start. In order to get the sweetest audio possible out of their phones, these enthusiasts often outfit their mobiles (and laptops) with digital-to-analog audio converters like the popular Audio Quest Dragonfly. Any phone they’d be happy with would have these high-quality audio circuits built in.
Adding these specialty inputs and outputs would of course inflate both cost and size. Kyle Wiens, founder of smartphone (and everything else) repair site iFixIt.com and occasional WIRED contributor, says each of those additional add-ons would need to be ruggedized as well.
“Each component would add maybe 15 or 20 percent in terms of weight and thickness to the whole unit,” Wiens says, “and every single component has to be individually armored, where a camera in a phone now is protected the by the phone’s case. It’s really a hardware design issue, but honestly 15 or 20 percent isn’t really a big deal.”
A swappable jack could fit a range of audio filters or brand-specialized attachments–even Neil Young’s Pono system. More inputs would be excellent, too.
A range of external microphones are available for iPhones, all interfacing through the legacy eighth-inch jack, including podcast-tailored gear like IK Multimedia’s iRig (with external pre-amp), and a more serious field recording attachment by Zoom, makers of the beloved digital audio recorders. There are of course fewer options for Android users.
And how about an old-fashioned analog meter to check your levels? Maybe something in cherry red like Sony’s old D6 pro cassette recorder. OK, this phone is getting pretty heavy.
Since Apple’s first negotiations with the music industry around the release of the initial iPod/iTunes suite in 2001 and eventual roll-out with the iTunes Store, the company’s devices have never quite operated the way music fans might want. Playable files have to be encoded in certain formats, and they’re difficult to move around, even to one’s own computer.This is mostly because of reasons related to copyright; making files more transferrable also means making them easier to steal. Though smartphones promised Swiss-Army-knife utility, Apple’s devices have become progressively more frustrating for musicians and fans who desire a reliable way to work with audio files. At the UI level, some re-thinkings could work vertically with other web services.
BoingBoing co-founder and speculative fiction novelist Cory Doctorow (who penned his own pro-headphone-jack screed) suggests building “a phone that can break the DRM on all streaming audio, creating loops that the user can integrate into her own compositions, auto-uploaded to asset repositories on bulletproof hosting servers run by companies that hand-check any DMCA takedowns to see whether they’re compatible with fair use and have a legal slush fund to fight spurious takedowns.”
For offline listening, the modern equivalent of making tapes off the radio, a mobile equivalent of the popular desktop app Audio Hijack would be useful. For long distance collaboration (or even just journalists trying to do interviews), one-click recording of calls via VoIP or cellular would be of deep use, though not a feature that any company will likely introduce soon because of the so-called “two-party consent” laws on the books in 11 states. Current workarounds involve third party applications and lifehacker tricks, but there’s no way to capture a direct signal without creative jailbreaking.
In his time operating the Sahel Sounds record label, Christopher Kirkley has worked with musicians from across West Africa, where the hit parade is veritably determined by those swapping music on USB drives and mobile data cards, often in territories where phone service doesn’t always go. Among other inputs and a more functional hard drive, Kirkley desires a phone with a “drag and drop app to send music,” like “WhatsApp for music sharing.”
Gotta Have Guts
So far, we’ve envisioned a phone that’s bulky, has a plethora of inputs, and runs some apps to free up your audio files. But we’re not done yet. It also needs a more advanced operating system.
Says iFixIt’s Kyle Wiens, “One of the major challenges that Ara faced is that Android and iOS aren’t designed to handle plug-and-play hardware. That was a major trade-off going from PCs to phones. I’ve been told that a lot of the work Ara over the past few years was to make changes to Android to allow it to be more plug-and-play.” He wonders if that work will be scrapped by Google now that Ara is kaput.
As the saying goes, music is the international language, and the IRL way it flows rarely adheres to the precepts of the mobile computing industries, though modular phones and other re-imaginings could change that.
But, Wiens reminds there are even more central issues at stake. Already shipping is the Fairphone, a modular phone that focuses not on far-out new-fangled dongles, but the basic parts of the phone itself. Like the Volkswagen, perhaps, it is a phone intended to be repaired by the user, fixing headphone jacks or installing new batteries or swapping out a screen, all without the mediation of an officially appointed corporate tech representative.
Wiens points out the massive privacy issues for musicians in turning their phones, sometimes filled with demos and rough mixes, over to unnamed company representatives for repairs or upgrades, pointing out the spate of high-profile hacks in recent years. The age of the personal phone roadie is perhaps upon us. “The ability to do the repair yourself or have your own staff do the repairs is a critical privacy thing,” he says.
Musicians and many serious users in general desire “something that’s durable, something that’s repairable,” Wiens says. “There’s no cell phone manufacturer that sells parts for its phones, and no cell phone manufacturer that makes service manuals available, and that’s kind of crazy. I wouldn’t buy a Mackie [mixer] if I didn’t know that I could replace parts. It’s a non-starter in the [music] world. It’s an industry that’s built on durability, reliability, and ruggedness, and the ability to fix things when shit happens.”
“It’s crazy how fragile phones are,” Wiens continues. “I think there’s something about having to worry about phones being fragile that kind of dampens the level of emotional output we can have, because we’re so afraid of breaking this $700 thing.”
A Phone for the Ages
There are still more features to consider. To guarantee file maneuverability, our device would have to be able to mount to a computer as easily as an Android phone. The internal storage would have to be substantial; up to (or beyond) 1 TB, enough for a virtually infinite supply of FLACs. Even just having full access to a device’s extant internal capabilities would be welcome, like the FM chip built into every smartphone, which could also listening to the still-fascinating range of activity occurring on the radio dial. And we haven’t even discussed the battery.
With all the sweet features attached, a truly music-friendly phone would easily cost an arm and a leg, be too big to comfortable carry around in the front pocket of your jeans, and would run specialty software. Perhaps it would end up functioning more like a pocket-sized music workstation than, say, a phone. But who still uses their phone as a phone, anyway?
Jesse Jarnow (@bourgwick) is a writer and DJ on WFMU. His writing appears in Pitchfork, WIRED, and elsewhere. He posts about psychedelic news and history via Twitter and on Facebook, and his new book, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America is out now from Da Capo Press.