How many times have you plugged your earbuds into your phone and then accidentally caught the cord on a door handle, or the edge of a table, only to either rip the headphone cord in two or send your smartphone skittering across the floor? For that matter, how many times have your headphones clotheslined you?
Probably a lot. It's a common occurrence, one that is the main selling point of wireless headphones. But wireless headphones will never sound as good as the alternatives that string their sound through a cord, and they require charging and batteries. Where is the better, safer headphone cord we all deserve?
Technically, it's already here in a magnetically connecting cord called the Pogo. And you're probably never going to see it on the market, because the major headphone makers are all petrified they'll be sued into a thin, translucent smear of grease if they ever dare to make it a reality, but not by who you'd think.
Back in 2006, Apple released the Magsafe, a power connector that is tipped with a small, powerful magnet. If you trip on a MacBook power cable, the magnet immediately disconnects, preventing your clumsiness from catapulting your expensive laptop across the room. It's a genius idea. Apple has MagSafe well-patented when it comes to laptops, prohibiting any other computer maker from using magnets to connect a cable to a charging port. But what about other cords? Couldn't this same idea be applied to other types of cables without getting in trouble with Apple?
That was the thought process of designer Jon Patterson, who became interested in (and frustrated by) the problem of headphone cords when he purchased himself a used OP-1 Synthesizer. Patterson loved the synth, but the headphone jack on the side was so fragile that he worried he would break it off entirely. He started looking for a better solution.
"I had just left my job designing at Nooka and I had a few months off, so I started researching the history of headphone connectors," Patterson tells me. "It turns out that there hasn't been much innovation in headphone jacks since the 1960s, largely due to the cost of repurposing existing manufacturing facilities." Modifying how headphone jacks worked even slightly would be disruptive to the point of impracticality.
Instead of coming up with an alternative to the traditional headphone jack, Patterson started cobbling together the prototype of what would become the Pogo. The main benefit of the Pogo is it's an adapter, not a connector replacement. That means you can plug it into any pair of headphones, and if you trip or catch the cord on the corner of something, the Pogo's magnetic seal will be broken instead of your headphones.
It's obviously a good idea. As Patterson was quick to realize, this magnetic adapter system could be used to make any cable or cord safer. Not only that, but they are cheap to make: a single Pogo adapter only costs $3 to produce. So why can't you buy a Pogo adapter now? In short, lawyers, man.
"I originally intended to Kickstart the Pogo, but I started receiving feedback that there were patents out there that were problematic," says Patterson. "I didn't want to lose my hair when the lawsuits came in, so I began to contact like-minded companies to try to make the Pogo a reality."
But no one would touch the Pogo. Urban Ears loved the concept, but didn't have the legal resources to research the thorny patent issues involved. They recommended that Patterson approach a bigger company with a legal team large enough to put in the proper due diligence. So Patterson went to Belkin. They took the idea seriously, but once their legal team had put in the appropriate due diligence, they rejected the proposal entirely.
Surprisingly, Apple's MagSafe patent was not the problem. The cadre of lawyers specifically called out U.S. patent 7,354,315, 7,901,216 and 7,500,882 as problematic. Despite the fact that no one is commercially making headphones or headphone adapters like the Pogo, Belkin's legal team concluded that the product was too likely to get them sued to go forward with.
Patterson is still hopeful that some company out there will decide to take a chance on Pogo. Despite the fact that Apple has patented its MagSafe technology up the wazoo, he points out that Microsoft was still capable of shipping its recent Surface tablet with a magnetic connector. These sorts of intractable legal issues can be resolved if there's enough of a will to do it. But right now, the future of Pogo looks bleak.
"I've always been told, 'If you can think it, you can make it.' But nobody ever talked about patent trolls," says Patton. "Today, patents seem to repress designers from innovating, instead of protecting their innovations. Who knows how many other designs that could innovate the market are being crushed for fear of being sued?"
The Pogo innovates a technology that hasn't substantially changed for 50 years, but because of the fear of being sued, it will probably never be made. Meanwhile, millions of us will go around every day tripping over cords and clotheslining ourselves on cables. Good design, apparently, can fix the common cable, but it can't fix the patent system.