The Jolly Teapot

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30 Sep. 2021

Abandoning Lightning for USB-C on the iPhone would not be progress

John Gruber, on Daring Fireball: Why Does the iPhone Still Use Lightning?:

In 15 generations of iPhones, Apple has changed the connector once. And that one time was a clear win in every single regard. Changing from Lightning to USB-C is not so clearly an upgrade at all. It’s a sidestep. […]

If you’re on team Lightning is nothing but a money grab”, you should explain why, for inductive (a.k.a. wireless) charging, iPhones have supported industry-standard Qi from day one. Or why iPads have been steadily moving from Lightning to USB-C.

Gruber has a point here. Apple is certainly happy to make some money from Lightning, but they would also make money from USB-C cables. When they introduced Lightning, it was to replace the 30-pin connector, and back in 2012 it was so much better than the alternatives that were the shitty Mini and Micro-USB used by Android phone manufacturers.

Apple didn’t came up with a proprietary connector for the thrill of it, they engineered something truly better than what was available at the time. For wireless charging, they went with the Qi standard because it was good enough for Apple, and only later they built the new MagSafe on top of it.

The main reason Apple is keeping Lightning — and not the only reason — is that they think it is still the better solution for charging a phone. Not everyone agrees on this, and I’m sure many at Apple are pushing for USB-C everything. The millions of people with nothing but Lightning cables surely agree with Apple’s decision to keep Lightning around for iPhones, AirPods, regular iPads, iMac keyboards, etc.

I’m quite neutral on this matter. I use USB-C for my Mac, my Beats Flex earbuds, and my wireless chargers (and therefore I use USB-C for charging my iPhone). But I don’t mind taking a Lightning cable with me when I travel without a wireless charger (which is otherwise a great way to only bring one type of charging cable on a trip). As a connector, I even find Lightning slightly better than USB-C in many ways: it’s a little smaller and has a satisfying click when it’s plugged in; USB-C has sharper edges, and feels more hollow, fragile.

Like Gruber says:

When Apple first started changing iPads […] from Lightning to USB-C, they didn’t say it was because USB-C is better, period, and certainly not solely for the reason that USB-C is open”. They said it was to enable iPads Pro to do things that theretofore only PCs and Macs could do, like connecting to external displays. iPhones aren’t meant for that. Or at least aren’t meant for that yet — if ever they are, iPhone peripheral capabilities, including hardware ports, will change.

I’m sure Apple will eventually give up on Lightning: first with Mac accessories, then AirPods, iPads, and finally iPhones. I’m not convinced USB-C instead will be real progress, and by the time it may be convenient for everyone, there will be a new, better connector available for our devices. That’s why I think it is more important to impose USB-C on the other end of the cable, the end that plugs into a charging brick.

Like I said on the tweet sharing the link to my post on the European Commission’s proposed legislation, I think the EC should start, for instance, to make USB-C wall sockets in every room of new buildings mandatories, same for every new car and every new charging brick.

The transition from the old clunky USB-A to the better and reversible USB-C will certainly be a more painful transition than the Lightning-to-whatever transition, regardless of what connector your phone uses. Without focusing on both ends of the cable, this legislation is destined to fail on its main goal: helping the consumer.

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