I think there are a couple of fascinating take-aways from this move by Fender. First, I think it says something when one of the biggest guitar manufacturers adopts such technology whole-heartedly. There's some obvious risk to this since the technology of digital music is still rapidly evolving. Hell, those connectors could be obsolete in a year or two at the pace things have been changing.
Earlier this year Fender withdrew their application for an IPO. Fender has gone through a fairly remarkable revival in the last ten years. A decade ago the company was on the verge of disappearing altogether. Since then some bright and aggressive leadership has come in to right the ship. However, that same leadership that always had an eye on cashing out big with an IPO. That fell through this summer and so I can’t help but wonder if this is a move of desperation.
OK, maybe “desperation” is a little harsh. Put another way, if the Fender had filed a successful IPO (that’s a big “if”, as almost no one else did), would they have done something this radical? Who can say. The timelines for manufacturing and tooling suggest that this idea has been in the works for a while so this may be nothing more than idle conjecture. But this feels like a very bold move for what most would consider a fairly conservative company.
The final point that I think is interesting is that this is only available in the Squier line. Right now you can’t buy an American Standard with these features. For now, I think this will mollify the fuddy-duddies who are their (current) high-end customers. Modifying the Squier addresses a younger market with newer features. The ubiquity of devices like laptops or iPads in music isn’t going away anytime soon. As good as some of the after-market interfaces are, it’s just one more thing between you and making some music. If I’m a sixteen year-old kid with an iPad in the house who is shopping for my first guitar, I’m definitely looking hard at the Squier. My parents probably are too. Hell you don’t even need an amplifier on day one. Five bucks in the App Store will get you Garage Band which does amp simulations that are at least as good as any cheap ten-watt practice amp.
Time will tell if this is really a major trend, or just a fad. But I’m downright intrigued at the idea of manufacturers moving the “traditional” analog-to-digital conversion point. Purists will sniff that the quality of the tone is entirely at the hands of the A/D converter and a guitar selling for two-hundred bucks is already rife with hardware compromises. No argument there. The question is whether or not it’s good enough. If this takes off, it will start with low-cost equipment like the Squier, but we should assume that it will one day work its way to grand dames of the line. At that price-point, the A/D converters have to be studio quality, and at that point the guitar is as easy to integrate as another MIDI controller (probably easier).
I wouldn’t throw your ¼" cables yet, but this might be the beginning of a serious transformation in electric guitar manufacturing.