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What's Really Going On With Apple's New Dock Connector

Aside from a larger screen, one of the biggest rumours about the next iPhone is the idea that it will feature a significantly shrunken down dock connector. But how small will it get? And more importantly: why does it matter?

The iPhone in your pocket right now communicates with other devices — most notably your computer — with a 30-pin connector. It’s been there forever; too long, in fact. Its size has become a limiting factor, taking up valuable space that could go towards thinner, lighter gadgets. In all likelihood, Apple is changing things up.

Not only is that going to make the iPhone and iPod accessories you already own obsolete — without the help of some easily misplaced connector that will cost you cash money — but more importantly, there’s a chance it could drastically change what those speaker docks and connectors can actually do.

Sizing Down

For months, the rumour had it that Apple’s next iPhone will feature a stripped-down 19-pin connector. That was news enough, since the old 30-pin has been in use since the switch from pure FireWire in the third generation iPod in 2003. But now we’ve got rumours of even smaller connectors — possibly with as few as eight or nine pins.

Like a smaller nano SIM (also rumoured), losing pins on the connector would be a massive boon to designing and engineering smaller devices. Even if the pins aren’t any skinnier — an issue for several years now — the reduced width could be used to slide other components around, cramming them in and shrink-wrapping the whole thing in a tinier iPhone body.

John Brownlee has a wonderful explanation of the iPod Dock Connector’s history, and its immediate future, over at Cult of Mac. You should read it. The piece does a great job of explaining the importance of the 30-pin connector. It’s not just a bulky alternative to a micro USB. It’s what allows iPads, iPods, and iPhones to communicate with our accessories as though they were traditional desktop computers.

But while Brownlee’s final say on what we’ll see from the next connector — a conservative 19 pins — feels safe, it’s perhaps too tepid. And since the iOS 6 code referring to a “9pin” is some of the most convincing evidence we’ve seen so far for an even tinnier port, we thought we’d look pin by pin at what Apple could reasonable remove on its way towards a smaller iPhone.

What Can Definitely Go

Here’s everything that’s in the current 30-pin connector, described by Pinouts:

And here are the pins that seem like they can be yanked, no problem:

29,30 GND FireWire Ground (-)

28 TPB (+) FireWire Data TPB (+)

26 TPB (-) FireWire Data TPB (-)

24 TPA (+) FireWire Data TPA (+)

22 TPA (-) FireWire Data TPA (-)

19,20 +12V Firewire Power 12 VDC (+)

17 NC

14 NC

8 Video Out Composite video output (only when the slideshow mode is active on iPod Photo)

9 S-Video Chrominance output for iPod colour, Photo only

10 S-Video Luminance output for iPod colour, Photo only

7

That’s 14 pins. We lose eight pins just by stripping out the carcasses of FireWire connections. Yes, iMacs and MacBook Pros still pack FireWire, but it’s an abandoned format. Thunderbolt is the high-speed transfer technology of the future, and USB 3.0 has found its way into the present for Apple. S-Video is equally obsolete, as are the two unused “reserved” pins, and the Composite video out pin. If not outdated, that tech is at least musty enough to see Apple cutting it out — especially from a format it hopes will be around another 10 years.

So here’s the question: Does Apple want to continue to future-proof itself by leaving spare pins in this version of the connector, as it did for the original 30-pin? Or does it say screw it, wired connection’s not the future. Let’s just make a connector that is going to last another decade.

What We’re Left With

Trimming down to nine pins would be traumatic. It would have to be. The remaining pins from the basic stripdown we did above are almost all necessary to make iPhone and iPod docks function as they have for the past nine years. Consider: there are five pins just on audio in and out for each ear and the ground. Throw in the basic functionality of an iPod dock, and the ability to connect and charge via USB? You’re already over the 9-pin mark with those things.

That’s what seems to be at stake here: We’re about to find out if Apple’s commitment to smaller and smaller gadgets is strong enough to change what those gadgets actually do.

Are there creative ways around dumping functionality? Sure, maybe. You could conceivably use the four pins that Apple crams into the Shuffle’s 3.5mm jack and combine them with a smaller connector. You would save interior space in the phone — the actual end goal here — but the implementation would be, well, problematic. If not entirely unrealistic. And would make using USB for anything a nightmare.

The other actively discussed but equally unviable solution would be to just route all the information and connections and everything a 30-pin does through Thunderbolt. 10 gigabits per second! That’s got to do the trick, right? Well, no, not really. You’d still need audio components to communicate with accessories. And while Thunderbolt would be a really great addition for syncing over a wired connection, even on the current generation of non-Apple computers, it’s still a luxury component. If anything, the addition of Thunderbolt to a dock connector might inflate the number of pins back up to 19. It doesn’t replace much; it just adds requirements.

Will It Even Matter in the Long Run?

An accessory maker we talked to agreed that it’s at least possible Apple might reduce the functionality of the dock connector. In the short term, that might be inconvenient. But in the long run, he says, his company was prepared for that, already focusing almost all of its resources on operating wirelessly.

And that may be the future Apple’s banking on. Who needs to connect a device to a laptop at all? And if that’s where the future is headed — and it almost certainly is — the real future-proofing might come from fewer pins, not more.

So the logical thing may be for Apple to go with 19 pins, keeping itself in position to adapt to any new technologies. Lay up, make the par. That’s probably what we’ll see. But the bolder move, to 9 pins? It could mean an iPhone on a major diet — but also one starved of some of the things we’ve come to expect.

Top image render via Melablog