The new iPod Shuffle caused a whirlwind of controversy last week for no particular reason--the Shuffle's not the world's most important product, and requiring special headphones is no great shakes. Enraged commenters even thought the custom control chip in the headphone remote was some kind of nasty Apple DRM lock-in. But a new rumor is just surfacing that points us in a new--and far more interesting--direction regarding that chip. Is it actually a microphone?
The rumor comes from two specific angles. First, check out Apple's language in describing the chip. Apple said it was for data "transmission" rather than hardware DRM authentication. Transmission, if you think about it, is a strange choice of words. What Apple's saying the chip is doing is sending a coded sequence of jolts back down the headphone wires to the iPod to correspond to each of the three keys on the headphone remote. That makes perfect sense. But transmission could also cover sending encoded data from a digital microphone, using exactly the same data path and sounds more like transmitting a bunch of data rather than a few tiny "clicks."
Second, someone has unearthed a bunch of images of MEMS microphones--they're tiny surface-mount chips that look, at first glance, incredibly similar to the 89S3E3 chip that's causing all the fuss in Apple's new iPod headphones (inset in the picture). Some of the chips measure a scant 1mm square and include all the sensing devices and electronic transmission needed for them to act as a digital microphone in a Bluetooth headset, for example. So the thinking is that the Apple chip might actually be both a button controller and a microphone.
If true, that would be fabulous. It could enable voice control for the iPod Shuffle (a nice solution to counter all the critics who think its control system is too complex), and it could be compatible with other iPods and iPhones, either currently on sale or due out soon.
But is this just a longshot rumor? There appears to be no "microphone hole" in the headphone remote, and many surface-mount chips look pretty similar. But including a chip in the headphones seems a little like overkill when the control electronics could've been fashioned with simpler components. It's also not beyond the pale for Apple to release the hardware in a locked-down state and then switch it on at some future point. The company recently admitted that there's Bluetooth stereo capability in the iPod Touch which will be turned on with the iPhone 3.0 firmware, confirming some long-held suspicions. "Unlocking" a microphone wouldn't require any changes to the headphones, of course, just an update to the firmware of compatible devices.
Still...I'm going to chalk this up as a pure rumor. The chip's there just to make the headphones a neat controller for the iPod, even though a voice-controlled iPod would be a sweet toy.