Thunderbolt For The Next iPhone? It's Enticing -- But Unlikely

The rumour mills are whirring into a frenzy over pictures that suggest the next iPhone may feature a smaller docking connector, with some commenting that it could be a Thunderbolt port. It'd be a fascinating move for Apple — but I doubt it'll happen. Apple rumours are such fun, aren't they? Pushing up the hype factor for one of the world's biggest tech companies which can sit back secure in the knowledge that, as long as they didn't announce it themselves, they can just sit back and let people ruminate; if nothing else it keeps their minds off alternative products.

That aside, the current crop of rumours are strongly hinting at the idea that Apple will adopt Thunderbolt as its port of choice for the new iPhone. On the surface, it's an idea with a certain amount of appeal. Thunderbolt's pure speed would make synchronisation of iPhones a snap, and it'd give the interface a real kick in the pants, as (theoretically) consumers flock to whatever Apple's next shiny gadget will have and like it.

I'm certainly not going to debate that Thunderbolt isn't a better port at a technical level than the existing dock connector and its USB 2.0 end point; Thunderbolt would be faster as well as smaller, which gives some interesting opportunities for new design considerations. I'm still sitting on the side of the fence that says it won't happen — and here's why.

Firstly, there's the speed issue. At up to 10Gbps, a Thunderbolt port could fill up the existing iPhone models extremely quickly, and in that respect, it's pure overkill. The parts and integration thereof won't come cheap for Apple, even if it does have money to burn. To put this in a competitive frame, bear in mind that USB 3.0 has been around for quite some time, yet no competing phone manufacturer has bothered with it in their phones — because it would cost more to integrate for a benefit that'd be hard to communicate to customers.

It would also be stuck with the problem it had with the original iPod many years ago. Original models used Firewire at a time when that interface wasn't particularly common outside of the Mac space; in order to fully embrace the wider Windows market Apple had to jump over to USB — and it hasn't looked back. While some boards for PCs are emerging with Thunderbolt options, it's hardly widespread. What do you do for those customers who buy a new iPhone and have nowhere on their PC to plug it in? Do you just rely on the cloud — and if so, what's the point in integrating Thunderbolt at all?

Apple could overcome the cost issue, I suppose, and from a purely technical viewpoint it might be a laudable thing to do. But then you'd hit the legacy issue, and that's where I suspect Apple would baulk at integrating Thunderbolt. There are millions of iPhones and iPods out there with Apple's dock connector, and while I don't think Apple executives would lose all that much sleep over whether third parties were put out by a switch from dock connector to Thunderbolt, the same wouldn't be true for the company itself. Apple's often a technology leader in some respects, but at the same time it's deeply conservative once it's got a working model. Dropping the dock connector in favour of Thunderbolt means that it'd have to maintain two completely different sets of products for most markets.

It's highly unlikely that they'd launch what I'll call the iPhone 5 for the sake of convenience and simply drop the existing 4S lines; the fate of the 4 and 3GS are perhaps less solid. The model here is a time tested one; a new iPhone comes out, and the old one becomes the cheap one, for those on tightened budgets and emerging markets. Embracing Thunderbolt would mean you'd have some customers on the faster connection, and others still needing dock-compatible accessories, parts and spares. I'm sure Apple would like the upsell to the newer, faster model — but I'm equally sure that it's aware there's money to be made in the middle and budget ground, and it's money that Apple would be all too keen to have in its pockets.

All this is, naturally, conjecture; only Apple knows what it's doing, and even then, the company culture is such that only selected parts of the company even know that. We'll find out more when Apple's ready to run another carefully stage managed keynote. That could be the upcoming WWDC keynote, or later in the year. Until then, the rumours remain rumours — and I'm not convinced by this one. But I am a little curious; would the concept of a phone that could sync over cable considerably faster even be a selling point for a company that prides itself on features rather than solid technical specifications? Would you buy a new iPhone purely on that basis?

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