Lightning Connection - Is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Lightning Connection

The European Parliament had a hearing which discussed a measure that would ensure smartphone manufacturers produced a common and standardized charger for all mobile devices that were sold in the European Union. This includes: Smartphones, tablets, eBooks and digital cameras.

Three connectors are currently in common use: USB 2.0 Micro B (otherwise known as the microUSB), USB-C and Apple’s Lightning cable. Of course, certain cameras come with their own connectors and there are also unique connections on fitness trackers or the Apple Watch.

The USB 2.0 Micro B can be located on a variety of older Android phones and tablets and occasionally some of the more recent models. More often than not, these tend to be on the more affordably-priced gadgets. 

The USB-C is on the majority of the most recent flagship Android phones from every brand. It has become the upscale de facto connector. The Lightning connector can only found on Apple products.

If you are an avid Apple user like me, you have surely asked yourself the question, why doesn’t Apple use the same charger as everyone else? This probably happened when, you were the only person in a room full of android users… and not an Apple charger in sight!

Well, in theory, it sounds amazing, but there are concerns and issues, that Apple is now addressing. 

What are these problems?

If you have been using iPhone and Apple for a while, you will more than likely remember the moment when you opened the box of your shiny iPhone 5 in 2012, to discover that the Apple had replaced the bulky 30-pin connectors on previous models, with a slimmer more streamline connector. This was the birth of the Lightning connector.

This caused mayhem in our homes. Suddenly we all had a surplus of spare (and newly void of use) cables, not to mention unusable iPod docking stations. There was an accompanying adaptor, but of course, had to be purchased and came as an inconvenience to consumers.

However, as the years went on, the Lightning connector has nestled its way in to our daily lives and become a prominent and accepted feature of every iPhone. In confession, most of us would admit that it is actually better.

Prior to this, with most connectors, you have a 50% chance of putting the cable in the device the wrong way around. It’s like the dreaded USB, where I know I need to insert it at least 3 times to get it right. First, because it didn’t fit, second because it really didn’t fit and third because I was right first time around.

The Lightning connection ensured this was a thing of the past and that you couldn’t get it wrong.

Has the EU done this before?

They have indeed and actually with great success. An agreement back in 2009, resulted in the number of connectors in common use, declining from around 30 to three. Furthermore, it would seem that the USB 2.0 Micro B, is almost a charger of the past. 

Apples argument is that with the normal standard connectors being that of two, reducing to one would offer little benefit.

Shouldn’t Apple just switch to USB-C?

In certain products, Apple has alreadyswitched. The latest versions of Mac laptops use USB-C, and the iPad Pro. Apple has made this switch because of the capabilities USB-C offers, for example the compatibility with attaching external displays. 

Furthermore, the charging plug that accompanies the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max has a USB-C socket on it, because they support fast charging.

If one were to compare the Lightning and USB-C connectors, you would see that the Lightning connector is thinner and the USB-C is thicker and wider. This thinness and more streamlined appearance is crucial when trying to create a super-slim device like the iPhone. The reason Apple disregarded the original headphone jack was to allow them to make the iPhone thinner. 

The world of the smartphone is becoming increasingly complex and changing one feature on a device can have multiple implications further down the line. As an example, if you want to build in a three-camera unit such as on the iPhone 11 Pro models, you have to move stuff around to accommodate this.

So, the thinner and smaller the connector, the less space it takes away from the battery or other items.  A smaller socket can result in increased space for headphone jacks and stereo speakers. To make one iPhone for the U.S. market and another for the huge market that is Europe, would require substantial extra research and obviously, significantly higher costs.

It is unlikely that Apple will make the switch to USB-C anytime soon. In fact, all the evidence for 2020’s iPhones, indicates that they will be thinner than current models. Apple is also eager to resist this mandatory change and consequently this likely means that the USB-C will not be coming out to all the iPhones released in 2020. Also, by the time the ban was agreed on, the new iPhone would also be out.

One potential game change that Apple could use in their favor, is that of environmental impact. Back in 2012, there were millions of Apple devices with the 3-pin connector. Today, there are even more that come with the Lightning connector, ensuring that if this change does come, it would cause an even bigger disruption to the ecosystem. 

It is possible that Apple could slowly switch other devices before the iPhone, like the other iPad models, wireless iMac mouse etc.? That way, before you know it, you will have a collection of USB-C cables.  

Apple does not seem to be against USB-C. It is actually beginning the transition to install more in its devices.

It seems that what Apple does want is the freedom to keep the Lightning connector for as long as it deems appropriate, which is more than likely to differ for each specific device. Perhaps, the door could be left open for them to develop an alternative connect of their own, that could enable functions that the USB-C could not.

Apple’s statement

Apple stands for innovation and deeply cares about the customer experience. We believe regulation that forces conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole.

More than 1 billion Apple devices have shipped using a Lightning connector in addition to an entire ecosystem of accessory and device manufacturers who use Lightning to serve our collective customers. Legislation would have a direct negative impact by disrupting the hundreds of millions of active devices and accessories used by our European customers and even more Apple customers worldwide, creating an unprecedented volume of electronic waste and greatly inconveniencing users.

We do not believe there is a case for regulation given the industry is already moving to the use of USB Type-C through a connector or cable assembly. This includes Apple’s USB-C power adapter which is compatible with all iPhone and iPad devices. This approach is more affordable and convenient for consumers, enables charging for a wide range of portable electronic products, encourages people to re-use their charger and allows for innovation.

Prior to 2009, the Commission considered mandating that all smartphones use only USB Micro-B connectors which would have restricted the advancement to Lightning and USB Type-C. Instead, the Commission established a voluntary, industry standards-based approach that saw the market shift from 30 chargers down to 3, soon to be two — Lightning and USB-C, showing this approach does work. 

We hope the Commission will continue to seek a solution that does not restrict the industry’s ability to innovate and bring exciting new technology to customers.