May They Get Struck with Lightning

by Colin Berkshire

I wrote in a previous article that iPhones are aggressively being stolen throughout Asia. The statistics seem to show that possessing an iPhone on your person is the single leading indicator of whether you are likely to be mugged in Asia. And, that trend is emerging even with the United States.

Of course, this threat to personal safety is easily fixed. Apple could add anti-theft to iPhones so that when a phone was erased a reactivation would be required and would be refused if the phone was marked as “Lost.” But that would cost Apple hundreds of millions of dollars of “blood money.”

So, now that I have replaced my latest stolen iPhone with an iPhone 5 I have been struck by Lightning a second time.

I have nothing kind to say about the new proprietary Lightning cable. I can’t charge my iPhone in my car. When I forget the cable the hotels cannot help me. When I am out of the country I cannot buy a replacement cable. I can’t use my radio dock. It’s a real, honest inconvenience.

I think the lightening connector needs to be put into clear context:

  1. It offers no benefits.
  2. It is not better than a micro-USB
  3. It is a tremendous inconvenience.
  4. It is expensive.

I don’t have any problem with Apple innovating. And, Apple is a great innovator. I usually love their stuff.

When Apple innovates they offer something better. They offer new and compelling features. They draw you to their products with desire and lust. This is why I buy Apple and it is what has made Apple great.

But the Lightning cable is like getting flogged. It offers no compelling features. It isn’t better. It’s simply worse. It’s incompatible. It’s anti-customer. And, because of this I think it is anti-Steve Jobs. Steve always drew you in with honey.

Let’s stand back for a moment on this issue and think clearly…

The 30-pin connector that Apple has used is clearly long in the tooth. It’s not a pretty connector, most of its functionality isn’t really needed anymore. There is not much excuse for continuing with it.

The only real reason that a connector is needed on an iPhone is so that it can be charged. You can AirPlay video and audio. Bluetooth accessories allow wireless streaming of music and headsets. You can wirelessly sync with iTunes. Screen mirroring is available via Apple TV. Remind me again what you really need a 30-pin connector for? I can’t think of a reason.

So, the case can be easily made for eliminating a connector entirely. Except: for charging the phone.

Apple has consistently made great engineering decisions in the past. And, the great engineering decision would have been to use a universal micro-USB connector on the iPhone.

Using a standard micro-USB cable would have allowed the iPhone to be charged and even would have allowed syncing and data via USB. It would have been compatible with every charger out there, every cable, ad every computer. It would mean that when I trek to Cần Thơ Vietnam I don’t need to bring one more cable with me, and if I forget I am not hosed.

The Micro-USB standard allows for up to 9 watts of power to be transmitted through the standard pins. While the iPhone uses only 5 watts, the iPad charges with 10 watts, more than the connector is rated. The new iPad 4 can charge with up to 12 watts. Is that a compelling reason to not use the micro-USB? It is not. The USB specification is flexible enough that one of the data pins could have been used as a supplemental power pin. While unconventional, it would have been compatible and within the USB specification. Apple is also great at getting standards modified (witness: nano-SIM) so they could have quite successfully lobbied that the almost unused 5th pin on the micro-USB connector could be a supplimental power pin, allowing up to 18 watts of charging power, or up to 27 watts if also using the data pin.

The only other argument for the Lightning connector is that it can be inserted either way. That is a great feature and I have long lamented that USB connectors didn’t have this feature. It would be easy to do! If you look at a micro-USB connector you realize that there are pins only on one side. Those pins could be mirrored on the other side of the phone-side socket, allowing the micro-USB cable to be plugged in either way. Yes, I have zoomed this up, and it is true that you could sign the micro-USB socket so that the cable could be plugged in either way! The mechanical design would be compatible, surprisingly. (The socket would be re-shaped to allow either orientation, right now it is polarized.) It would be backwards compatible with every cable.

How cool would it have been for Apple to announce that they had adopted the universal micro-USB connector but that they had innovated so that it could be plugged in either way. As an added bonus, it would be possible then to design a bi-sided USB plug that made contact on both sides of the bi-directional socket. That would have automatically doubled the wattage capacity of the connector. That means that 18 watts could be sent to the device without using the almost-unused 5th pin or sending power down the data pin. It would have been a devilishly clever solution.

But Apple instead chose to hurts its customers. I never knew Steve Jobs to hurt his customers.

I am starting to wonder if Tim Cook doesn’t understand the nuance between proprietary-hurts and innovation.

The iPhone 5 is a good phone. I don’t see it as worth upgrading to, but otherwise it is nice. Except I hate the Lightning cable. I wish the designer of that cable was struck by Lightning.