In the past few years, USB-C has become the go-to connector for a wide range of devices. It’s used on most android phones, notebooks, tablets, game consoles, headphones. And even accessories like mice, keyboards, and external storage drives. But when it comes to Apple’s most popular product, the iPhone, USB-C has yet to be adopted. Instead, every model of iPhone still uses a Lightning connector that was introduced years ago with the iPhone 5.
This has led people to wonder why Apple hasn’t transitioned the iPhone to USB-C. Especially for a company who has a reputation of being the first to adopt new standards. Why would Apple, the company who adopted USB-A before anyone else with the original iMac, take so long to bring USB-C to their smartphones?
It’s pretty bizarre, especially considering they’ve already included it in their iPad and Mac lineup. Well, the answer lies in a story that begins in 2010, when Apple was developing the iPhone The device would be twelve percent smaller by volume compared to the previous 4S. Which meant the large 30-pin connector needed to be replaced by something smaller in order to free up space for other components.
Why iPhones Don’t Use USB-C
At the time, Apple was helping to develop the USB-C standard with other companies like Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung. But the new connector wouldn’t be ready until 2014. Two years after the iPhone 5’s release. So because of the bad timing, Apple was forced into a corner. They could either keep the 30-pin connector for another two generations and sacrifice the iPhone 5 and 5s’ compact designs. Or they could create their own proprietary connector and cause fragmentation within not only the smartphone industry, but their own product ecosystem.
It was a lose-lose proposition, but Apple went with the latter option. That decision not only cause a huge amount of backlash from users in 2012, who were frustrated that Apple made all of their previous iPhone accessories obsolete, but it’s still causing them issues to this very day. For example, when USB-C was ready to go in 2014, Apple wasn’t in a position to transition the iPhone lineup a second time, just two years later. They knew they had to stick with lightning for as long as possible, or else they would be in for a PR nightmare.
So they persisted, and when the AirPods were introduced in 2016, Apple was forced to use the same connector as the iPhone, since the two products were designed to be used together seamlessly. So Lightning was introduced to yet another product line. One that would expand into the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, which also had to use Lightning to maintain consistency between models.
iPhone ecosystem without USB-C
It’s almost like there was a smaller iPhone ecosystem that existed within the larger Apple ecosystem. Because while the iPhone and its accessories continued to use Lightning, almost every other Apple product adopted USB-C. The MacBook line began the transition in 2015, the iPad line in 2018, and the Mac Pro in 2019. You also have to consider the other controversial changes Apple made with the iPhone in previous years.
They removed the headphone jack in 2016, and they removed the wall adapter from the iPhone’s packaging in 2020. Both of these decisions caused perhaps even more backlash than the transition to Lightning in 2012, and caused Apple to think twice before moving to USB-C, which would only add fuel to the fire.
So how can we expect Apple to resolve this connector fragmentation issue in the future?
Well, rumors are suggesting that it won’t be resolved, since Apple isn’t planning on transitioning the iPhone to USB-C at all. Instead, they’re exploring the possibility of removing the connector from certain iPhone models entirely. And there are benefits to this approach. A smartphone with no port would be more water resistant since its chassis could be completely sealed off. And it would be more durable. Since inserting and removing a connector thousands of times can cause wear, buildup of debris, and contact issues.
But how would the phone be charged without a port?
Well, Apple has already implemented a solution with the iPhone 12 lineup. The models have something called Magsafe, which is essentially a Qi wireless charger surrounded by a ring of magnets. This makes the charging experience very similar to an Apple Watch, a device that also happens to be port-less. And if Apple wants to include wireless data pass through, they can simply borrow the Smart Connector from the iPad.
Everything Apple needs to create a port-less iPhone already exists. And it only seems to be a matter of time before they make the transition away from wired connectors entirely. At that point, I think each category of Apple device will of their own unique methods of charging. Their computers and iPads, which Apple has been calling computer replacements anyway, will feature USB-C. Their mobile devices like the iPhone and Apple Watch will feature convenient grab-and-go magnetic wireless charging.
While accessories like the AirPods, Magic Mouse, and Magic Keyboard, will continue to use Lightning. With wireless charging available when possible as a convenience feature. We’ll have to wait and see what decisions Apple makes with the release of new products in the near future.