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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.


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