Should Ap­ple dump the Lightning port?

It might be time, ar­gues Ja­son Snell

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS -

Are­cent Wall Street Jour­nal re­port re­in­forced ru­mours that there’s a very new iPhone com­ing this au­tumn, with a flex­i­ble OLED screen. But along with that ex­pected bit of in­for­ma­tion came an un­ex­pected one:

“Ap­ple [will] in­tro­duce other up­dates in­clud­ing a USB-C port for the power cord and other pe­riph­eral de­vices, in­stead of the com­pany’s orig­i­nal Lightning con­nec­tor. The mod­els would also do away with a phys­i­cal home but­ton.”

As John Gruber noted at Dar­ing Fire­ball, “this is a ter­ri­bly writ­ten para­graph.” It adds a layer of pars­ing that is ut­terly un­nec­es­sary if the writer was clear on what was ac­tu­ally be­ing planned, though it might be a bit more un­der­stand­able if the in­for­ma­tion avail­able to the Jour­nal re­porter was spotty and un­clear and there­fore re­quired sim­i­larly un­clear lan­guage. (We would ar­gue that if that was the case, it would be bet­ter to not re­port on some­thing than re­lay your un­cer­tainty on to your read­ers. But we are not the Wall Street Jour­nal.)

The sec­ond sen­tence, which sug­gests Ap­ple will do away with some­thing it has al­ready done away with (in the iPhone 7), prob­a­bly means that Ap­ple is in­tend­ing on elim­i­nat­ing the vis­i­ble cir­cle of the home but­ton, but that de­pends on how your de­fine ‘phys­i­cal home but­ton’. This is con­sis­tent with ru­mours of an edge-to-edge screen that would leave no dead space for a home but­ton or Touch ID cir­cle. (Our gut feel­ing is that Ap­ple won’t aban­don Touch ID, and we find the touch sen­sors on the back of some An­droid phones to be per­fectly fine al­ter­na­tives if Ap­ple can’t fig­ure out how to em­bed a touch sen­sor in a screen.)

But the Lightning para­graph – that’s the re­ally puz­zling one. At first read­ing, it comes across as a flat-out state­ment that Ap­ple is go­ing to ditch Lightning for the USB-C con­nec­tor cur­rently found on the MacBook and MacBook Pro. But a sec­ond read high­lights some of the de­tails – power cord and other pe­riph­eral de­vices? – that make you won­der if this might be a mis­read­ing of a de­ci­sion to re­place the USB-A-based cords and power adap­tors that come in the iPhone box with USB-C

mod­els. (We’re also a bit baf­fled by how the Lightning con­nec­tor is ‘orig­i­nal’, un­less it means it’s like a Net­flix Orig­i­nal.)

Still, the Wall Street Jour­nal would ap­pear to be a more vis­i­ble and rep­utable source than an an­a­lyst or blog with some sources in Ap­ple’s sup­ply chain. It’s gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be one of the places where Ap­ple has it­self tac­ti­cally leaked in­for­ma­tion in the past. So let’s take a mo­ment and con­sider this ru­mour se­ri­ously. What would drive Ap­ple to kill the Lightning con­nec­tor, and why would it keep it around?

The case for Lightning

Let’s start with the case to keep the sta­tus quo. It be­gins with con­trol: for the life of iOS, all iOS de­vices have con­nected via a pro­pri­etary, Ap­ple-de­signed plug. For nine years it was the Dock Con­nec­tor (in­tro­duced on the third-gen­er­a­tion iPod in 2003), and for the past five years it’s been Lightning. Be­cause Ap­ple de­signed the plug, Ap­ple con­trols it: legally you can’t cre­ate a Lightning ac­ces­sory un­less you agree to Ap­ple’s li­cens­ing pro­gram.

If Ap­ple em­braced USB-C on iOS, it would still be able to of­fer its ‘Made for iPhone’ cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram, but cre­ators of de­vices wouldn’t need Ap­ple to bless their de­signs for iPhone or iPad ac­ces­sories. It would be a dif­fer­ent sort of world.

Ap­ple’s creation of Lightning isn’t just about con­trol over third par­ties, ei­ther – it’s about con­trol­ling func­tion­al­ity, too. Lightning is ex­actly the plug that Ap­ple wants, or at least, was ex­actly the plug it thought it wanted when it rolled it out in 2012. Lightning was de­signed with Ap­ple’s needs for iOS de­vices in mind, not the needs of a broad con­sor­tium of tech com­pa­nies and a de­sire to con­nect phones, tablets, com­put­ers, print­ers, and many other de­vice types.

The de­sign of the USB-C ca­ble shows many of the same pri­or­i­ties Ap­ple had in cre­at­ing Lightning: it’s re­versible and very small. But it’s worth not­ing that the Lightning port is thin­ner and smaller than USB-C. And with Ap­ple, ev­ery mil­lime­tre mat­ters.

Fi­nally, there are tran­si­tion costs. iOS users just went through a plug tran­si­tion, buy­ing new ca­bles and adap­tors and pe­riph­er­als in or­der to move from the Dock Con­nec­tor to Lightning. There are still clock ra­dios with Dock Con­nec­tors in ho­tels all over the world. Af­ter only five years, why put users and third-party hard­ware com­pa­nies and ho­tels through that again? AirPods charge with a Lightning plug. Key­boards, mice and track­pads charge with Lightning. It seems like Lightning has mo­men­tum.

Think about it: last au­tumn Ap­ple re­moved the head­phone jack from the iPhone 7, and built adap­tors and new head­phones based on Lightning. Why put all the fo­cus on the Lightning

port and then swerve a year later to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent con­nec­tion type?

Why Ap­ple might kill Lightning

Get out your knives – it’s time to end Lightning and put it in the ground. Here’s why Ap­ple might de­cide to make the switch.

First, con­sider the sim­plic­ity of an Ap­ple prod­uct line that’s en­tirely fo­cused on a sin­gle con­nec­tor type: USB-C. The Mac has al­ready made the switch, with Thun­der­bolt and USB ports both re­placed with the sin­gle USB-C con­nec­tor. (On the MacBook Pro, the USB-C port dou­bles as a Thun­der­bolt 3 port.) In a year or two, imag­ine if ev­ery sin­gle prod­uct Ap­ple makes has a sin­gle con­nec­tor type. The same video adap­tor or card reader or hard drive could work on iOS and Mac de­vices. In­stead of main­tain­ing two sets of adap­tors for two plat­forms, Ap­ple could get it down to one.

Then there’s the fact that USB-C pro­vides all the fea­tures that Ap­ple re­quired when it de­signed

Lightning. Lightning was meant to be a small, ver­sa­tile port ap­pro­pri­ate for mo­bile de­vices, with a re­versible plug so you never had to worry about which way was up. USB-C does all of that. Yes, Lightning was there first, but USB-C has ar­rived, and with broad in­dus­try sup­port. Ap­ple has em­braced USB-C for the Mac, in­di­cat­ing that the com­pany feels that the con­nec­tor is the real deal. Why wouldn’t it go all in?

What’s worse, the Lightning and USB-C con­nec­tors are so sim­i­lar it’s laugh­able – and worse, it’s con­fus­ing. We have sets of USB-C adap­tors and ca­bles, and sets of Lightning adap­tors and ca­bles. For a while, we were keep­ing them in the same drawer, and we were end­lessly pulling out one ca­ble when we thought we were pulling out the other. Yes, if you look closely you can see that USB-C is larger and Lightning keeps its pins on the out­side, but peo­ple don’t al­ways look closely. Af­ter a lit­tle bit of time with both plugs, we

know what we’d do if we had a Lightning-to-USB-C ca­ble in our house. We’d be end­lessly try­ing to plug the wrong end in.

The so­lu­tion to this prob­lem? Get rid of Lightning en­tirely. When Ap­ple em­braced USB with the orig­i­nal iMac, it was mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial for both the USB spec­i­fi­ca­tion and Ap­ple. For USB, the iMac was a huge shot in the arm, prompt­ing hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers to build de­vices that worked via USB at a time when the PC in­dus­try was hes­i­tant to do so. For Ap­ple, it meant that com­pa­nies re­luc­tant to de­sign prod­ucts lim­ited to the Ap­ple-only se­rial, ADB, and SCSI plug for­mats would no longer have to do so – a sin­gle USB prod­uct could work on both Macs and PCs.

So here we are again. Em­brac­ing USB-C on iOS gives Ap­ple’s de­vices ac­cess to a larger mar­ket of USB-C pe­riph­er­als, in­clud­ing ones that might have been de­signed for An­droid phones or even for PCs. It also opens the door to the use of tra­di­tional com­puter pe­riph­er­als with iOS de­vices. If the iPad Pro can truly do the work of a lap­top, wouldn’t it be good if the iPad Pro had ac­cess to pow­er­ful USB-C pe­riph­er­als in­stead of a more lim­ited group of Lightning ones? (We’re un­clear on what the max­i­mum data trans­fer rate is over the Lightning plug, but USB-C and Thun­der­bolt 3 are pretty spec­tac­u­lar on that front, so we’re go­ing to guess that USB-C has more head­room for fu­ture ad­vance­ment, too.)

Of course, since USB-C is not Ap­ple’s baby, that also means that it’s not its prob­lem. With Lightning, Ap­ple clearly feels a need to pro­vide a base level of ca­bles and adap­tors for its prod­ucts.

I’m sure some of that would con­tinue if iOS were to em­brace USB-C, but at the same time, it would take Ap­ple off the hook. Some­one, any­one else could make adap­tors and ca­bles and docks to serve par­tic­u­lar needs, and Ap­ple wouldn’t need to be in­volved. Con­sider what hap­pened when the MacBook came out in 2015: it was ob­vi­ous that the one-port de­vice needed an op­tional dock with mul­ti­ple ports, but Ap­ple didn’t bother to de­sign one. It left that to ac­ces­sory com­pa­nies, and walked away.

Fi­nally, con­sider what the Lightning jack rep­re­sents to the vast ma­jor­ity of iOS users: it’s a method of charg­ing and, if you’re us­ing an iPhone 7, the place you plug in your head­phones. Most iOS users don’t buy a raft of pe­riph­er­als and adap­tors, they just charge their de­vices. Pre­sum­ably any iOS de­vice to ship with a USB-C port would in­clude its own USB-C charger and ca­bles, and any iPhone would pre­sum­ably ship with a set of USB-C head­phones. So what’s the big deal?

Yes, those of us who do buy adap­tors and ca­bles and the like would be forced to buy them again. Does that sound fa­mil­iar? This is the ar­gu­ment we all made last year when de­bat­ing if Ap­ple would elim­i­nate the head­phone jack from the iPhone 7. It’s not that re­quir­ing users to buy a new set of adap­tors and ca­bles wouldn’t cause some le­git­i­mate pain and cost – it’s just that Ap­ple has shown, time and again (and as re­cently as last au­tumn) that it doesn’t re­ally care about that. If Ap­ple thinks mov­ing to USB-C is the right ap­proach, it won’t hes­i­tate be­cause it will re­quire an­other adap­tor tran­si­tion.

So now what?

As we wrote this ar­ti­cle, we kept think­ing that the case for Ap­ple to re­place Lightning with USB-C is stronger than the case for main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. Maybe the re­cent re­moval of the head­phone jack has re­minded me that this is what Ap­ple does, again and again, and ar­gu­ments for con­sis­tency and con­ser­vatism never win over ar­gu­ments for bet­ter fea­tures and stronger tech­nolo­gies. If to­day’s Ap­ple is the same one that ditched the head­phone jack last year, we’d ex­pect Lightning to start go­ing by the wayside be­gin­ning this au­tumn. But it’s a close thing – we wouldn’t put money on it. Not yet, any­way.

Ap­ple AirPods

Lightning-to-USB ca­ble

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