Commentary: Apple’s era of forcing consumers to use Lightning cables lasted far too long
Facing a European Union deadline, the iPhone maker will make a switch to USB-C charging that should have happened years ago, says Bloomberg Opinion’s Dave Lee.
SAN FRANCISCO: It’s 2012, and the iPhone speaker dock I was given by my mum the previous Christmas is blasting out Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe which, unlike most of the other hits that year, would come to stand the test of time quite perfectly.
Less enduring would be the 30-pin Apple charger that made such a fine technological feat possible. That year would see it ditched; replaced in the iPhone 5 with the 8-pin, 80 per cent smaller Lightning connector we all recognise today. Just like that, millions of peripherals and accessories were rendered obsolete.
Now Apple is set to do it again. The iPhone 15, unveiled on Tuesday (Sep 12), is the first Apple smartphone to make use of the already widely adopted USB-C. Finally.
This isn’t because Apple has chosen to, but because it has to: New European Union legislation set an end-of-2024 deadline for all new smartphones to use USB-C for wired charging. Apple is complying by rolling it out everywhere.
We can be glad that we’ve reached an end result that is better for consumers and the environment. Unused and discarded chargers account for about 11,000 metric tonnes of e-waste a year.
CONTROVERSIAL MOVE TO LIGHTNING
But it would have been much better for Apple to have made this move of its own volition - the era of forcing consumers to use a proprietary charger is years past its sell-by date.
Apple previously argued that the switch will make things worse, forcing millions of consumers to throw out their existing iPhone charging cables and accessories.
This is an issue Apple seemed less concerned about when, in 2012, executive Phil Schiller eagerly introduced Lightning as “a modern connector for the next decade", one tailored for a new age in which more was done wirelessly thanks to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and faster cell service.
By then, the old adapter had been in use since the third-generation iPod in 2003. As a result, millions of peripherals and accessories were out there: In cars, in hotels and in my kitchen. Speaker docks, which would charge the device while playing music from it, had for many replaced the need for a bulky Hi-Fi system.
Ditching the 30-pin adapter created no small degree of controversy. Though the device itself got favourable reviews, the New York Times’ tech columnist at the time called it “not just a slap in the face to loyal customers” but a “jab in the eye”.
Tech news site Ars Technica called the change “painful", while CNET raged that Apple chose a proprietary connector rather than the more widely adopted, and just as small, microUSB. A Bloomberg Businessweek article, appealing for calm, reminded that other tech advancements - cassette to CD, floppy drives to thumb drives - had come and gone, and “fortunately, the republic seems to withstand such changeovers”.
To ease the transition, Apple released a US$30 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter that made it possible, if rather jankily, to still use some of these “old” accessories. It wouldn’t be the first time Apple would subject its users to the dongle life - it did it again with the removal of the headphone jack in 2016, a move that still garners some resentment.
In time, few could argue the move to the smaller, simpler Lightning connector wasn’t a smart move for Apple - and for the people who used its devices. The 30-pin connector now looks comically enormous. Schiller kept his promise: Lightning lasted more than a decade, and likely would have survived even longer had regulators not forced Apple’s hand.
LESS DISRUPTION EXPECTED IN SWITCH TO USB-C
The good news is the switch from Lightning to USB-C should be far less disruptive. Other than looking slightly different - the connector pins are hidden inside the USB-C, rather than exposed - most consumers will barely notice any functional change.
USB-C is only ever-so-slightly larger - 8.4mm versus 6.6mm - and can still be plugged in either way up. It could mean faster data transfer and quicker charging. And while Apple has claimed that mandating one connector to rule them all will “stifle innovation,” it has already incorporated the port into its iPads and MacBooks without drama.
Unlike with the launch of Lightning, when Apple sent accessory makers scrambling to release new compatible products, USB-C has been in widespread use for years.
Samsung introduced it to its Galaxy Note range way back in 2016. Kelley Blue Book says “every mainstream carmaker offers USB-C connections somewhere in its model lineup”.
Apple’s slow adoption was stubbornness - consumers should be glad the EU has hurried things along.
Even with the change, our existing cables and docks will have plenty of use in them yet. An estimate from analyst firm Wedbush says of the 1.2 billion iPhones out there, about 230 million haven’t been updated in at least two years, such is the lessening desire to rush out for the new device each year. That’s understandable - in 2012, the iPhone was US$200, about a quarter of what it costs today, and users more quickly felt the impact of deteriorating batteries and sluggish software.
REMOVING CABLES ALTOGETHER
Besides, these days there are few reasons to plug in an iPhone to anything at all.
Backups of even the largest files can be done wirelessly and without fuss almost instantly. Watching movies in the very highest quality is now a case of streaming over Wi-Fi or 5G rather than needing to have the file on the device.
Wireless charging has been possible since the iPhone 8, though Apple itself has been unable to produce its own wireless charging station, abandoning its attempt in 2019, saying it didn’t meet its “high standards”.
Still, we can reasonably expect that the next time Apple decides to change the charging port will be the moment it removes it altogether. “It seems a forgone conclusion,” said Oliver Seil, vice president of design at leading accessory maker Belkin. “At some point you should be able to live without cables”.
Until then, expect to see a smattering of unhappy headlines about the new iPhone as upgraders discover they will need to replace several chargers - because these days, few people have just one. Apple will hope other upgrades to this year’s device, more substantial than those of the past few years, will help it bounce back from three straight quarters of declining sales.
When the new iPhone hits the market, costly memories of 2012 may come flooding back. But move on from Lightning we must.
If you are someone who decides to upgrade, perhaps take the moment as your cue to finally clean out that box of tangled cables you’ve been hoarding - I doubt you’ve even touched them since Call Me Maybe topped the charts.