I've been an Android user since the Nexus One, but I have to admit: the recent generations of iPhone have tempted me. Apple's industrial design is amazing as ever, the Magsafe accessory system is innovative and flexible, and the Apple Watch continues to absolutely stomp any wearable alternative. Don't get me wrong — I still love my Pixel 5, and I know I'd miss the hell out of all the sweet customization that Android enables and even encourages. But as a technology journalist, it wouldn't kill me to give the other side of the aisle a try for a while.
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Apple has a nasty tendency to stick with a poor decision long after everyone can see that it is, indeed, poor. That's doubly true when the company has created a custom, proprietary system that it owns. It did it way back in the day with hockey puck mice, it's doing it right now with the Touch Bar on laptops, and on the mobile side, it has an anchor weighing down otherwise excellent phone hardware. That anchor has a name, and it's the Lightning port.
Obstinance and obsolescence
The proprietary Lightning connection is now nine years old, replacing the (admittedly awful) 30-pin dock cable. It's appeared on every iPhone since the iPhone 5, and most other Apple mobile devices, including the charging ports for accessories like the AirPods, the Magic Trackpad, and even esoteric gadgets like the Apple TV remote or Beats wireless headphones. It was serviceable enough back in 2012, being smaller than Micro USB, reversible, and meeting or beating its technical requirements.
But it's not 2012. And Apple is still shipping everything from an entry-level iPad to a $1600 iPhone 13 Pro Max with a cable that maxes out at USB 2.0 speeds. That's 480 megabits per second, a speed that's achingly slow for anyone who wants to move today's high-res images and movies around.
The Mini's USB-C is 10 times faster!" "What about the iPhone?" "What about the iPhone?"
And Apple admits this! In yesterday's presentation, company representatives said that the new redesign of the iPad Mini is "about to get a lot faster and even more versatile" when announcing the long-overdue switch from Lightning to USB-C, as Apple has already done for the iPad Air and iPad Pro. It said right to the audience that the new connection is "ten times faster than its predecessor," the predecessor that's still on every brand new iPhone.
Apple knows the value of USB-C
Apple went on to praise easy, interchangeable connections with "a vast ecosystem" of accessories. That's a big deal. Apple pioneered a switch to USB-C for charging and data, starting with the Macbook refresh six damn years ago. Now almost every laptop (save the gaming and workstation models that need more than 100 watts of power) uses the same charging system, a huge boon to travelers that's created a new and thriving ecosystem of accessories. That includes Apple laptops, now exclusively featuring USB-C.
The Lightning port on the iPhone 13 looks like someone installed a hand crank on the front of a Tesla.
You did it, Apple! You actually pushed a new connection standard, and everyone in the industry followed you, including Android phone makers! Now my phone, my laptop, my headphones, my rechargeable battery, my game controller, my digital camera, and my Apple-branded iPad Air all recharge using a single, unified cable. The dream is real!
Except for the iPhone. If my buddy needs a recharge at the bar, he has to head to his car to get a cracked and yellowing Lightning cable and plug it into his state-of-the-art iPhone 12. And every time I see it, my resolve to wait another year to try an iPhone is renewed, because even the cheapest Android phones can use all my latest chargers. The Lightning port on the iPhone 13 looks like someone installed a hand crank on the front of a Tesla.
Gee, those ports look awfully familiar.
When European regulators attempted to force the industry to adopt a single, interchangeable charging standard to curb environmental impact, Apple argued that this would "stifle innovation" and make hundreds of millions of devices and accessories obsolete, contributing to e-waste instead of achieving the opposite. But Apple had no problem with that when it ditched the headphone jack on its phones, instantly resigning its iconic white earbuds to trash heaps around the world. Its solution — another adapter dongle — was the same one it used when the EU mandated a common charger standard in 2009, then settling on Micro USB.
But let's not beat around the bush. Apple has already looked into the feasibility of using USB-C on the iPhone, and decided against it. Not for any benefit of the planet — its new AirPods are still charging with lightning cables, with zero technical or aesthetic reason for doing so. Nope, it's hanging on to this dinosaur of a propriety standard specifically because it's proprietary. It's a hardware differentiation from Android that keeps iPhone users locked in, exactly the same way that my refusal to go backwards from USB-C is keeping me locked out. Sony's tried the same thing, with a long list of proprietary media formats like MiniDisc and MemoryStick, trying to strong-arm an entire industry onto its turf. Eventually Sony saw the error of its ways ... so now it's a measure of which company is more arrogant.
Some analysts expect that Apple will adopt wireless-only charging, and a phone that has zero physical ports, before it switches to USB-C. That seems unlikely to me, but if it turns out to be true, I can wait. At least on the wireless side of things, Apple has decided to use a semi-universal standard, Qi charging (even if Magsafe makes it proprietary for some accessories again). Fine. But I'm not going back to hunting through a rat's nest of cables for the only one that works with just one gadget, Apple. That's the wrong way to think different.