OPINION: Apple about to ditch the Lightning cable?

We’re perilously close to the announcement of this year’s iPhones. They’ve been rumored for months. Believe it or not it’s been a year since iPhone X was announced and so here we are. Normally the rumor mill would be in full swing but it seems like everyone knows what’s coming this time. Or do they?

Because the internet is always right

Key sources around the internet have been saying the same thing for about nine months. There will likely be three new phones: an upgraded version of the iPhone 6/7/8 chassis, a slight tweak to the current iPhone X, and a super-sized version that ought to put the iPad mini out of business. Those options “seem” right in the minds of most people and so that’s what everyone is expecting. Apple may have other ideas.

Will there be one little surprise?

There has been a lot of talk about Apple potentially abandoning the Lightning connector in favor of USB-C in this generation. I certainly wouldn’t be incredibly surprised, but let’s look at the facts.

The decision might be out of their hands

For years, the European Union has been pushing for a common cell phone charging standard. It makes sense and we’ve already seen countries like South Korea adopt this. In the past that standard has been MicroUSB. This shows the problems that come when government gets involved with this stuff. Everyone (including myself) has been saying that MicroUSB is incredibly awful for years. USB-C fixes a lot of what’s wrong with MicroUSB and while it’s still not perfect, it is still the best choice.

In countries where there’s a legally-mandated standard, Apple provides a free adapter dongle which ends up being just one more thing to lose. I also think it impacts Apple’s sales. Apple is far less popular in Asia and while some of that comes from Samsung’s home field advantage and Apple’s high price, at least some of that has to come from the awful little dongle.

If Apple wants to continue dominating in Europe, they may have no choice but to take out Lightning and add USB-C to the mix.

Apple has a history of “eating their children.”

The term “eating your children” became popular in the 1990s when Intel started marketing new processors at lower prices than their old processors. Today it’s more of a generic term for any practice that actively makes your old stuff obsolete. In Apple’s case, that usually means they’ve ditched support for yet another connector. ADB, Apple Serial, SCSI, FireWire, Apple Cinema, the 30-pin connector and so many others have been actively orphaned by Apple. Ditching Lightning, which has only been with us for about half a decade, is right in their wheelhouse.

They already went to USB-C with their laptops

The MacBook line is now USB-C from top to bottom with the exception of the MacBook Air which retains its 2009-era hardware design. Since we expect a new MacBook Air this year as well, that will probably mean that Apple has completely embraced USB-C. It’s not only the connector on a Mac, it’s the only way to power it. Some folks would tell you that’s a good omen for USB adoption on phones as well.

Would it really matter if Apple went to USB-C?

I guess I would have to argue, “no it doesn’t.” When Apple switched from the 30-pin dock connector to Lightning, it did make a difference. There was a robust market for accessories and keeping your old alarm clock or wired speaker meant buying expensive adapters that were in short supply when the iPhone 5 launched. Today people charge wirelessly and connect over Bluetooth. Truth is that USB-C wouldn’t make much difference to anyone and would probably be just the thing to get people to finally ditch their old dock-connector equipped alarm clocks. (Who uses an alarm clock anymore anyway?)

I will say that I think Lightning is a superior connector in general. By making the plug part a single flat puck, everything is more resistant to dirt. Lightning connectors are slightly smaller, and in a phone every millimeter counts. Putting in USB-C would take away space needed for a battery or a speaker.

The audio situation

Those folks who are inexplicably tied to their cheap wired headphones will say, “great, another adapter to buy.” Since iPhones started shipping without headphone jacks, you’ve had to use a fairly expensive dongle to connect your old earbuds, or use the ones supplied with the phone.

All I can say to that group is, at least analog audio over USB is at least possible. The latest controller chips will put analog audio over USB if you want it, meaning that the dongles should be cheaper. That’s a small victory but hey, take it where you can.

My take

I would be surprised if Apple did away with the Lightning connector in this round. However, I think they will. It would fit in with their overall strategy of moving to industry standard connectors once the industry catches up with their proprietary designs. It’s coming, that’s for sure, but I don’t think this is the year for it.

If you have an Apple device, you might want to check out the great selection of Lightning cables, including many that have the “Made for iPhone/iPad” certification, now at solidsignal.com.