March 16, 2009, 3:03 PM — Apple's third-generation iPod shuffle no longer includes the familiar control pad of previous models, instead providing a slim, three-button remote controller on the headphone cable. As we reported last week, this means the new iPod shuffle is not currently functional with any headphones but Apple's own. While a number of vendors have announced plans for aftermarket headphones with a similar controller, none are yet available.
Over the weekend, Web sites iLounge and Boing Boing Gadgets both reported that Apple will be requiring any third-party headphones that wish to include this inline remote to include a special "authentication chip." Remote-equipped headphones that do not contain this chip, including the headphones included with the iPhone and iPhone 3G, would not be able to control playback on Apple's latest compatible devices. (Apple's remote-equipped headphones and compatible third-party models also allow you to control the most-recent versions of the iPod touch, nano, and classic, as well as control media playback when used with Apple's current MacBook and MacBook Pro.)
iPod-accessory vendors V-moda and Scosche as well as other vendors speaking to Macworld anonymously, have confirmed these reports, though some are calling the circuitry a "control chip" rather than an authentication chip. As with Apple's dock connector and--more recently--proprietary circuitry necessary for iPods to output video signals to third-party accessories, Apple will charge vendors a licensing fee to include this new control chip in headphones and other accessories. In the past, vendors have told Macworld that such fees are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for iPod-compatible versions of common accessories.
Given the apparently simple nature of the new controller, it's not yet known if vendors will be able to reverse-engineer the control chip, or whether Apple will take legal action against vendors that do so. In the past, some third-party vendors reverse-engineered Apple's dock connector and produced products--with varying degrees of compatibility--without Apple's blessing to avoid paying licensing fees. As a result, Apple instituted the Made for iPod and Made for iPhone programs to indicate which accessories have met Apple's specifications (and, not coincidentally, which vendors have paid these fees).
Apple has not yet responded to our requests for comment.