All my dongles

Are you thinking about me, Tim?

Ever since I got the iPhone 8 last year, I’ve had a dongle problem. The dongle is the stupidest decision Apple has made in the last five years (other than all the other stupid decisions.)

As I wrote in a post hypothesizing how the new iPhone came to be,

The headphone jack is the only thing that’s been reliable on every phone since the beginning of smartphones. It’s the one feature that’s there for the user regardless what headphones they have. They can plug it into the car, or into an audio for a quick jam session. They don’t need Bluetooth or any accessories. Let’s kill it. Let’s make dongles.

The iPhone can’t be plugged into a music source and charge at the same time, so using it in my 2011 SUV has meant getting a special adapter. The splitter plugs into the cigarette lighter to charge. It also plugs into the aux cord, which plugs into the…aux cord hole…to create the actual music.

This was all less than ideal, but what makes it worse is that my husband and I share the SUV. He likes to plug in his own music when he’s driving. Since he has an Android phone, he needs to unplug the aux cord, plug it into his phone, and plug the phone into a secondary, Android charger, that bypasses the Apple adapter and goes straight into the cigarette lighter.

Are you following all of this? Because I was lost a paragraph ago.

Things really got lit last week when our daughter dropped my husband’s old phone (a Motorola Z2 Play) in the toilet, and he had to get a new one (a new phone, not a new daughter - a Motorola Z3 Play).

All the new phones, following Apple’s lead, have The Dongle Situation. This means that my husband also needed to now buy a new adapter in order to both charge his phone and listen to music in the car.

Guess what?

That adapter is DIFFERENT from the Apple adapter.

And so, this is our current dongle situation:

I keep getting worried we’re going to get pulled over for violating some kind of dongle quota.

A lot of people responded on Twitter that it would make sense to just use Bluetooth. But my car doesn’t have Bluetooth. And neither do many, many cars that are older. Bluetooth just started rolling out for some models in 2010 (38% of cars in 2011 were sold with Bluetooth), but didn’t really hit the market for real until 2013-2014.

The other solution is to do some kind of modification. All of these sound just as much of a pain as what I have now.

Of course, I could just buy a new car, which is set up to better play with digital lifestyles. But me, and millions of more Americans don’t have new cars. 70% of all car sales per year are used cars, and the average American car is 11 years old, which means a significant portion of the country is still driving cars without Bluetooth.

However, you know who is driving cars with Bluetooth? And heated seats? And all the possible integrations that make using an iPhone and an Android together in a car very easy? The executives of the companies that produce all these products. That is, the people making the product decisions.

It’s very easy to green-light products that work well in your filter bubble. Usually, companies are super myopic and design only for a specific subset of users, because people are myopic, too. It’s in our nature to create these filter bubbles - it makes life easier than thinking about a million edge cases.

But edge cases can be extremely large in some scenarios. For example, most of the high-traffic websites on the internet work just fine on Macbooks, fiber internet, and iPhones. They don’t work in the other 4/5 of the world.

It got so bad that sites like Facebook had to simulate it:

In an attempt to understand the millions of people in emerging markets who only have access to slow internet connections, Facebook is adopting a new opt-in initiative called "2G Tuesdays." Facebook employees logging into the company's app on Tuesday mornings will be able to switch to a simulated 2G connection for an hour, making profiles, pages, photos, and videos load slower than they usually do on the 3G and 4G connections nearly ubiquitous in the United States.

It’s hard to say whether this fixed anything, because Javascript and third-party tracking still are bringing the internet to a grinding halt.

And in the physical world, dongles continue to take over everything.

But it - designing for the user- is something I always think about as I unplug and plug my dongles back in for the millionth time. Whether Tim Cook, Zuck, Satya, or any of the other people who are responsible for influencing how millions of people use products, understand how those millions of normal people live, and whether they’re targeting them at all, anymore.

Art: The Giant Snake, Max Ernst, 1935

What I’m reading lately:

  1. An oral history of AOL Instant Messenger

  2. Good summary of the recent Russian protests

  3. Everyone LOVES to make A/B testing front-ends

  4. I haven’t read this yet but it’s super bookmarked

  5. AI in China


About the Author and Newsletter

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about issues in tech that I’m not seeing covered in the media or blogs and want to read about. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a newborn, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

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