Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
A post by DigiTimes that’s making the rounds cites unnamed “analogue IC vendors” who say that Apple could be moving the iPhone and iPad to USB-C by 2019. That move would spell the gradual demise of Apple’s proprietary Lightning port, which was introduced in 2012 and has been the connector for basically every iProduct since.
That would be really cool! Imagine using the same plug to charge your phone, tablet, and laptop. Imagine using the same HDMI to USB-C or SD card to USB-C adapters used with your laptop to get video out on your phone, or photos in. An all USB-C world is what we were promised with the announcement of the standard back in 2014, and the largest phone and tablet maker putting it in its phones and tablets would be the final boost the standard needs to become ubiquitous.
But let’s be real…USB-C is probably not coming to the iPhone any time soon.
Apple has led the USB-C charge in the laptop space. It was one of the first laptop makers to include it back in 2015 with the then new MacBook. And it made waves in late 2016 with the new MacBook Pro that killed nearly every other port in favour of USB-C. Looking at that one could infer that Apple is going to embrace the connector in phones and tablets next, following in the footsteps of nearly every top Android handset maker today.
First, consider that by Apple standards Lightning is still a baby! FireWire was in Apple products for twelve years. The 30-pin adaptor found in that iPod you have in a drawer somewhere was used for 11 years. Lightning is only about six years old.
But more importantly Lightning is a crucial part of Apple’s MFi licensing program. MFi is short for Made For iPod/iPhone/iPad. In order to get the cool little logo that appears on licensed products, including trustworthy Lightning cables and other accessories, a licensee has to pony up some money to Apple. That money used to amount to 1.5 to 8-per cent of a product’s MSRP. But in 2014, according to this Quora post, the price dropped to a flat $US4 ($5) per connector.
That flat fee is rumoured though. In order to join the MFi program potential licensees must sign an NDA that forbids disclosing the price. If they don’t sign, or opt out of the licensing program all together, manufacturers can still produce Lightning products, but it will lack certification, and as we’ve seen in the past, a failure to be certified can result in some nasty bugs presenting on the iProducts themselves.
So most reputable cable and peripheral makers join MFi. What this means is that for every $8 USB-A to Lightning cable Amazon sells, Apple is getting a cut. It’s still a lot of money — particularly as iProducts are Apple’s best selling products.
There’s also the fact that USB-C continues to…be kind of a mess. There’s no certification program for USB-C products. Usually there isn’t even a way to see how much data or energy a cable can handle without testing it (and potentially harming whatever USB-C port those cables are plugged into). This is why a lot of phone and laptop makers have to almost overbuild the USB-C ports on their products. They’re protecting against that one cousin who buys all his cables at the gas station and then wonders why they don’t work after a week.
So why would Apple get rid of its nice, safe, money-making port to embrace USB-C? Particularly as Lighting currently supports the same data rates as USB 3.0 — something USB-C also supports. There’s no real reason, thus far, for the company to move out of its safe zone on its most popular product.
DigiTimes could be right, of course. The MacBook and MacBook Pro could be harbringers of an all USB-C future for Apple. But it probably won’t happen by 2019.