The Next iPhone's Foolproof Dock Connector

How can you improve on Apple's nine-year-old 30-pin dock connector? You might start by reducing the size. Ever-shrinking gadgets need smaller connectors. You could also reduce complexity. A simpler design would be easier to use,easier to make, less prone to failure, more sustainable and cheaper.

If those are the two big improvements, add one requirement: Longevity.

You have to design a connector like this for the long term. No technology can last forever, but the stakes are really high for this part. Last quarter alone, Apple sold close to 50 million iPhones, iPads, and iPods. This was in a quarter that many (crazy) people considered to be disappointing. All of those devices came with 30-pin connectors. Over the next 10 years, Apple will need to make a billion of these new connectors.

It has to be used across multiple product archetypes. These days it's smartphones, tablets, PCs, and MP3 players, but you need to take into account things you might invent in the future, too. The iPhone was four years away from existence when the first 30-pin connector shipped. Needless to say, designing for longevity is the hardest part of creating a new connector.

So, reduced size, reduced complexity and longevity.

Great design briefs aim for something more than just listing requirements. They try to have one succinct and clear thought that can be the rallying cry for the whole team. A headline. Something that can carry over to the marketing of the product. When you tell someone that headline, they instantly get it. Boom. Of course that would be the goal.

I think the goal of this leaked part is this: Design the foolproof dock connector.

Let's start by thinking about connectors in a very elemental way: A post is inserted into a hole, which results in two metal ends touching to create a circuit.

As it turns out, most connectors for electronics are physically more complex than that. When you insert a connector into a port, you think you are inserting a post into a hole, but usually you are aligning a post inside of that hole with another hole that is inside of the post. This is a simplified cross-section.

Usually this works OK, but it does makes it harder to line up the two parts and can sometimes cause damage. Think bent VGA pins, or consider how many times you have to spin a USB connector around until you get it to fit. The current 30-pin dock connector is designed like this.

A better, simpler design would do exactly what we think we are doing. Inserting a post into a hole. Some connectors are designed like this. Headphone jacks, for example. Reducing complexity reduces the chance for error.

The connection of the metal ends needs to remain constant to maintain a signal. That means connectors and ports are generally designed so a firm, solid metal piece comes in contact with a flexible metal piece. The flexible piece tightly hugs the solid piece, preventing signal loss. The flexible parts can be anything from pogo pinsto just a thin piece of bent metal that physically flexes, like inside the 30-pin connector.

The solid parts are stronger because they're solid. The flexible parts are weaker because they can move. Because the flexible parts are weaker, you want to make sure they are recessed so they can be protected.

The first thing you notice are the eight gold pins. They're small, racetrack-shaped and flat. They look like the connectors you would see on an SD card or even Apple's OS X USB install stick from Lion. In other words, the stronger, solid pieces of metal are exposed, which means the weaker, flexible pieces of metal are probably concealed inside the port end of the device.

The solid goldpins are separated from each other within a white rectangular piece of plastic. That plastic rectangle is at the end of what looks like a flat silver post. The post appears to be solid. No posts with holes to align with holes with posts like on the 30-pin connector. This is a very simple "post in hole" design.

Those two design choices — exposed solid gold pins and a solid flat post — make this connector tremendously more durable than the 30-pin design. Again, the simpler you make something, the less prone to failure it becomes. It's almost as simple as a headphone jack, which I think is the best analogy for this design.

Let's dig a little deeper. The pins appear to be mirrored on both sides of that flat silver post. Meaning, you see pins on one side and if you flip it over, you would see an identical set of pins on the other side. It's hard to confirm this without video, but I think that this is true.

The mirrored pins could be implemented in two different ways:

  1. 16 pins — eight pins on the top and eight different pins on the bottom.
  2. 8 pins — eight pins on the top and bottom have mirrored functionality.

Wait a second.9to5Mac noticed that iOS 6 betas have references to a hardware feature called "9Pin." The hardware feature is widely presumed to be a new dock connector featuring nine pins. That rules out the 16-pin option, but what about the eight-pin option?Kyle Wiens of iFixit has a possible answer for that: The silver post might act as a big grounding pin. There's the ninth pin. (Coincidentally, USB 3 Standard A and B requires nine pins. I'm not saying this is USB 3 — it could just be an interesting coincidence.)

Regardless of the number of pins, this connector looks perfectly symmetrical, which means you can probably insert it in either orientation and it will work. That would solve the issue of inserting the connector incorrectly and causing damage. Yet another simplification and a win for users.

That flat silver post looks like it sticks out a bit. I think the extra length would help it adapt to a setback radius like you see on the iPad 2 and 3.It's hard to tell from the picture just how far it sticks out, but if you look at one of the disassembled pieces, you can see a light grey plastic thing attached to the metal. I think this plastic will sit flush with the white plastic housing, giving you a rough idea of how long the post is.

On the edge of the silver post, there is a divot. The divot is most likely mirrored on the other side of the post. This looks to me like a locking feature. A spring-loaded clip inside the portcould snap into the divots, giving it a nice audible click or locking sensation when you plug it in. (Update: Matthew Panzarino suggests that it could be a spring-loaded ball bearing acting as the clip in the port. That sounds right.)

Most connectors havesharp right angles at the end. The silver post on this design is rounded off. This could be helpful for docking. Instead of carefully aligning the connector with the port, you might be able to drop your iPhone into a cradle without having to aim it, preventing both damage to the connector and scratches to your device's housing.

It's impossible to know from these pictures if this connector is magnetic like MagSafe, but based on the length of the connector,the locking divots,and the fact that it's rounded at the end, I'm going to guess that it's not.

That brings us to the white plastic housing. This is the area you grip when you insert the connector into your device. It's racetrack-shaped, like the dock port we have seen in the leaked images of the unibody iPhone, which would be a good visual cue. Match this shape to this shape. Nice and obvious. The circular hole in the back of the housing is for the cable and looks to be roughly the same size in diameter as the current 30-pin connecter cable.

One thing I am really curious to know about is how that flat silver post was made. I don't see anyseams that would indicate that it was a stamped and foldedlike USB connectors typically are. It could have been machined from a solid piece of metal. It also could have been cast or injection moulded.

Here's some wild speculation: liquid metal can be injection moulded. I'm not saying that this part is made with liquid metal — I'm saying that this is a good application for it.According to Wikipedia, liquid metal attributes include: "…high tensile strength, excellent corrosion resistance, very high coefficient of restitution and excellent anti-wearing characteristics..." Good features to have on a part that takes the amount of abuse that an iOS dock connector does.

Let me put it another way: After the "Unibody iPhone" piece came out, a few people asked me if that design was made out of liquid metal. I think it's more likely that this connector is made out of liquid metal than the unibody iPhone.

I can't say for sure that this is the new iOS dock connector, but my gut feeling says that it probably is. Even if it's not, we can at least agree that this design has some pretty smart features baked in. A "job well done" to its creator.

Thinking about what the new connector needs to do (reduced size, reduced complexity, longevity), this design seems to cover all the bases.

It's much smaller, and its solid pins and symmetrical post-and-hole design would be physically simpler.My guess would be that for the first year of manufacturing this part, it will be more expensive than it is to make the 30-pin connector. As Apple gets better at making it in scale, the cost will go down, and eventually it will be cheaper than the current design. It's also important to remember when considering simplicity that less material means less cost and more sustainability. Stronger parts mean reduced repair costs. Less repairs equal happy customers. Over time, the savings could be huge.

Longevity is impossible to determine without knowing the technical specs of what we're looking at.All we can tell from the physical attributes of this part is that it is small, robust, and could connect to both shallow and deep ports. That's about it.

What I like about this design is that it doesn't look like what you would expect a connector to look like. It looks like a consumer product. Refined. Finished. Non-threatening.Everything about it leads me to think it was designed by industrial designers and not electrical engineers. I'm sure engineers were involved with its creation, but industrial designers drove it.

That's rare for a project like this. At most companies, this would be a "technical" project led by the engineering team with design input, not a "design" project led by the design team with engineering input. Apple is not most companies.

Why does Apple need to invent their own connector? Why not use mini or micro USB? They're smaller than the-30 pin connector. They're standards. They're likely cheaper. They already exist.

Part of it is control. We are about to witness one of the fastest connector adoptions in history because Apple created and completely controlled their own standard. I would be really surprised if it took more than 18 months for the entire iOS line and accessory market to adopt this connector.

I don't think Apple's motives are control for the sake of power. They want control to make the best thing they can. Go back to my imagined design brief headline. Design the foolproof dock connector. Give eight different companies that brief and you would get eight different solutions. Now try to get those eight companies to agree on just one solution. After several years of fighting over inane details, you would end up with a watered-down, sad version of a foolproof connector. If Apple could design a connector from scratch, without having to cooperate and compromise, it could very well end up looking like this.

This post originally appeared on The Tech Block and has been republished here with permission.

The Tech Block carries select tech-reated content that's produced in-house or hand-picked from user submissions that meet our criteria. To publish with us or to learn more about the publishing process, visit our publisher page.

Don Lehman is a Chicago-based industrial designer and the founder of More/Real, a startup focused on making technology feel like a natural part of our lives. More/Real's first product, Stylus Caps, turns common pens and markers into touchscreen styluses. Don has been honored by the Industrial Designer Society of America, his work has been featured in the CES Innovation Showcase, and his design for the Contigo Autoseal Travel Mug was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of the 50 Coolest Designs of the 21st Century.


Comments

    don't worry there will be some "genius" somewhere that figure out how to insert it wrong in no time

      I'd be wrong to say that there's always "one genius" who does it wrong, the world is full of them

    The problem with calling something "fool proof" is that new and improved fools are being born every minute.

      I believe the line was something along the lines of, "when you make something foolproof, the world invents a bigger fool".

    You know whats really easy, micro USB... if only all phones used it, oh wait they do, except for apple

      It's true. The article talks about longevity of the port, but I get the feeling micro-USB will be around for a very long time. In addition, the micro-USB port for USB 3 has a split design, so you can still plug in micro-USB 2 plugs into the micro-USB 3 ports. I don't see how making a proprietary standard gives better longevity than adopting an open standard that works for everyone.

      Can microusb charge, exchange data and pass through high resolution audio at the same time like the 30-pin connector can?

        Yes. But I don't believe it will do analog audio which is one of the main pros with the doc connector.

    So just how many phones are actually damaged by poor connector insertion? I suspect the answer is extremely low.

    Also pity the poor European i-thing consumers who will have to put up with another adapter!

      European customers use the same connection the rest of us do. They just have an *optional* micro-usb adaptor.

      It was quite a few years ago (around the time of the 1st iPhone) but I've worked fixing mobile phones. Of all the crazy and confusing damages I've seen to mobiles, damage to connection points seemed pretty limited to corrosion from water ingress.

      So yeah, from what I've seen your suspicions ring true. Damaging connectors due to poor connector insertion really isn't a common issue.

    Just use micro USB for f*cks sake. Why do companies insist on making their own proprietary adapters, docks, connectors etc.?

      so that they can charge through the nose for licenced accesories

        Apple are actually bound by EU law to provide microusb adaptors when selling in Europe.

          Sony did the whole proprietary thing for years... look where they ended up...

    You are underestimating the ingenuity of fools.

    Anyway, the new connector looks flimsy.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Recently got my parents setup with the following 1) iPhone each, 2) Apple TV, 3) Airport Express. Reason for this is iOS is the only OS they can use. The iPhones where $0 on a plan, got the Apple TV and Airport Express for $99 each. The Apple TV integrates with there existing speakers and TV. They actually made money moving to this setup (selling DVD players, etc). Apart from setting up the broadband connection I let them do the rest (e.g. setup there phones with iCloud, setup Airport Express and Apple TV). Although the apple stuff is too limited for some, for someone like my parents there is no one else that offers such a simple and integrated solution (no need for bluethooth sharing etc. Want something on the TV just push the airplay button, BANG). This setup may not work for most tech heads but for people with no interest in a full computer setup this is probably the most elegant and simplest solution. Yes they are locked into iTunes and iCloud, but otherwise the only option they have is a dumb phone (no facetime with family, no iMesage with family) and DVD's for all entertainment. Tried them on my Galaxy Nexus for some time but Andriod was too complicated for them.

      I got a Galaxy S2 and a Samsung LED TV. The phone was $0 on a plan. The TV instantly saw my wireless router and I can stream from my computer. I can send stuff from the phone to the TV and the TV has USB ports so I can plug in other devices. I didn't need to buy you 2. or 3 and I have a setup my 6 year old knows how to use.

      As they say "your mileage may vary".

        I do the same with my Galaxy Nexus. Unfortunately my parents can't use Android or a Full Computer OS. My friends 6 year old setup a VPN from McDonalds to home to play his PS games when at McDonalds. 6 year olds are fairly capable when it comes to technology. My point is that tech heads or advanced user represent only a small amount of the population. My parents don't care where a product is Microsoft, Google or Apple. All they know is that they can pick up a iPhone and use it with minimal help or guidance. My parents and there friends know that when they go to each others house they tap the AirPlay icon to show there photos on the TV (apart from sharing there wireless logon details).

        Your 2 is a TV with wireless connection (parents don't want to buy an entirely new TV). Your 3 is the wireless router (my parents didn't have any internet connection previous and where only supplied with an ethernet modem - so they had to purchase a router in this case an Airport Express). Don't see how the amount of hardware would be any different for any other setup.

      Sheeple. Good one. Never heard that before.. Ouch, burn! :|

        What? No one claimed that Apple was the only company with products that do this.

    But how will I borrow all my friend's Apple chargers if they change the connection?

      Don't worry they'll be going cheap when the new ones are released!

    I don'think these are even related. Is that plug supposed to fit in the bottom of that phone..? They aren't even the same shape.

    I like it.. the only way we are going to advance is if we try out new things.. if it works a charm, other companies will want to adopt a similar change.. I'm not talking about money.. I'm talking about advancing.. a micro usb is great, but it hasn't advanced.. do we honestly want to sit around and 20 years later still have micro usb and say, hey it works why bother changing it.. I don't.. because in that 20 year's, no one bothered to advance our technology, no matter how small it is.. apple brings out this connecter, a few years hopefully usb will be intergrated to be foolproof, micro usb will seem annoying.. if we want better technology, we have to do things.. apple is doing.. android phones is taking the same existing tech and just upping the specs.. google is developing cars that drive themselfs.. yet people don't want to bring them in because of legal issues.. how can we move forward if no one let's us take a step.. my point is.. change shit.. see how it works out.. improve it.. then develop something better.. there's no such thing as a bad idea, as that bad idea can be the starting point for the best idea..

    I seriously dont see the issue with a Micro USB. Its a legitamate EU Standard ffs. Well done apple, again.

    Woah... Hold your horses people. This connector is thought to be apple. I have to agree it does have the makings of an apple design. I say this, because it looks like a connector that is designed, not engineered.

    For those who don't see the problem with USB, ask youself how many times you have tried putting any of the USB connections in the wrong way? Then there is the feel of inserting a plug. As smart as engineers are, I work with a few and they are blind to the human element of the equation. If a problem occurs between a device and a person 'human error' is the cause. Industrial designers are more inclined to consider ways to make a device with obvious affordances (uses) and prevent misuse, which is otherwise known as 'human error'.

    Whatever this connector ends up in I look forward to using it.

    Another note. Steve's reality distortion field is still strong. How else would 'liquid metal that can be moulded' be a revelation? Umm... Liquid metal has been around since at least the bronze age. I realise this is a particular composition, but this author like others I've read make it out to be some sort of black magic. Just how did you think metal was shaped before?

    One more point. Has anyone had any issues with the 30pin dock? I've been using them since the iPod 3rd gen classic and besides blowing the dust out occasionally and trying to put it in the wrong way, it has been a durable decent connector.

    Not saying that a new connector isn't required, just that the problem isn't so much the connector, as the joint to the cable! The only way I can understand the failing of apple cables at the join, is that the sale of cables is a cash cow that just keeps giving. I really hope that if the are refreshing the connector design, that they can give some more thought to how it joins to the cable.

    Once one isheep learns how to break it the rest will follow suit :P

    "Whatever this connector ends up in I look forward to using it."

    ...sounds a blast!

    lol trying to spin it into a good news story? Micro USB would be the most logical choice.... but then that wouldn't make them as much money would it?

    You may have seen the recent article on Gizmodo RE the MAGdapter - http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2012/08/australian-guy-invents-a-fix-for-the-iphones-changing-dock-connector/.

    This connector looks frikkin' awesome and a can't wait to make a MAGdapter out of one!!!

    “Whatever this connector ends up in I look forward to using it.”

    …sounds a blast!

    +1

    The liquid metal concept might be on the money - Apple acquired exclusive rights to the Liquidmetal Technologies metal alloys a couple of years back.

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