It’s Time For Apple To Kill Lightning

One way or another, the future is USB-C

Gabe Salkin
Feb 11, 2018 · 5 min read

After bouncing back on stage in September after unveiling the iPhone X, Tim Cook declared that it was the future of the iPhone, and the future of Apple.

This is what I wish he had next said:

As we look to the future, it’s time that we take stock of the past. The Lightning connector has served us well for the last five years. As the world’s first miniature, reversible connector it showed the rest of the industry the right way to plug in phones and accessories. However, the industry is finally catching up with USB-C.

Cook would continue:

Like on our Macs, USB-C has incredible potential for mobile devices. It is fast, supports quick charging and other protocols like Thunderbolt, networking and high-resolution video. To bring all our products in line, today we are announcing a transition all of our devices to USB-C by the end of next year.

Transitions are always difficult, so Apple will do it’s best to make the process seamless. Starting today, all iOS devices will ship with Lightning to USB-A as well as Lightning to USB-C cables to connect to our newest Macs. Next year, we will start shipping great new updates of our accessories with USB-C support, followed by major updates to our iPads and iPhones with USB-C.

We believe USB-C is the future of personal devices, and we are dedicated to providing our users time to adapt to this new standard.

This hypothetical announcement would send shockwaves through the industry. Consumers might be angry: their accessories once again rendered obsolete á la 30-pin connector.

The tech press could be equally exasperated. Bewildered even by Apple jettisoning their own standard. Is it a play for more profit in their accessories business? An attempt to bolster waning enthusiasm over the MacBook Pros?

It might be all of those things. But it would be the right thing to do.

There is something utopian in the promise of USB-C: the one standard to rule them all. Compact and reversible; up to 100W of power, speeds up to 10 Gbps and an “alternate mode” for networking, Thunderbolt and video. No longer would we struggle with different ports for different protocols or the frustration of inserting a cable incorrectly.

As Marco Arment has written, the reality of USB-C is kind of a disaster. Some ports and cables support faster speeds than others. Some cables don’t support power delivery at all. There’s a dearth of quality USB-C accessories and hubs. Some accessories are so poorly constructed that they damage computers. Devices going “all-in” on the standard (like on the MacBook Pro) have been a frustrating mess for consumers.

The MacBook Pro’s experiment with USB-C is a microcosm of the issues with USB-C writ large. Millions of perfectly good accessories now require dongles. But putting aside that important point, a USB-C future is superior. The technology is solid but what USB-C needs is buy-in from accessory makers; and nothing is more motivating than the iPhone.

Nothing is more motivating than supporting the iPhone

Were Apple to signal the transition to USB-C, it would immediately force accessory makers to adopt the standard. You can’t not support the iPhone. It is the one device virtually all manufacturers support in some way. It is the single greatest way to encourage USB-C adoption.

The benefits of forcing the industry to USB-C could be wide and varied. The Made for iPhone (MFi)sets a baseline of specifications that accessory makers must reach in order for their products to be approved for the iPhone. In one fell swoop, Apple could finally bring some much-needed quality control to the world of USB-C; setting standards in data and power delivery and ensuring safe usage for all devices. MFi becomes not only a symbol of compatibility, but a symbol of quality.

More important than iPhone compatibility would be cross device compatibility. Imagine — gasp — accessories that work on both Android and iPhone, Mac and PC?! Not the craziest idea in the world. Before every phone manufacturer lost their damn mind and removed the headphone jack, we could buy one pair of headphones, period. If manufacturers are hell-bent on exorcising the headphone jack, the least they can do is settle on a common replacement.

(I suppose if Apple wanted to be really stingy, they could use some kind of accessory DRM to allow only MFi accessories to work. It would be cruel, but it’s also a very Apple thing to do.)

The key to this transition would be exactly that: it’s a transition. Apple is actually really, really good at transitions when they try. They’ve done it many times in both hardware and software. It is about communicating with your customers, providing timelines; and ensuring procedures to bridge people into the future. That’s why the MacBook Pro’s cold turkey move to USB-C was so infuriating for customers: there was no warning or transition process.

In this hypothetical coda to Apple’s iPhone announcement, Tim Cook would uncharacteristically show a bit of Apple’s hand — essentially pre-announcing new iPhones, iPads and accessories. What a profound moment of trust and honesty that would be. We all “know” new devices come every year, so why not drop the theatrics for a moment when it most benefits the customer? (Jobs did as much when he signaled the move to Intel, effectively giving consumers an excuse to hold out for new machines.)

Sadly, this is nothing more than a hypothetical, a pipe dream perhaps. We’re still stuck with Lightning; still stuck with crummy USB-C hardware; and still without the transitionary experience I know Apple is capable of.

There’s always next year?

Gabe Salkin

Written by

Lead Engineer for the Aspen Institute’s Digital Team. Part-time writer, full-time nerd. Tweets here: @gabesalkin