Oh Apple Lightning connector, how do I love thee?

Summary:Apple is known for using proprietary components in its products that have often drawn ire from the industry at large. But in the case of the new Lightning connector used on the latest generation iPhones and iPads, the company has clearly innovated.

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Ever since I got my iPhone 5, and after receiving my new iPad 4th-generation this weekend, I've learned to love Apple's new Lightning connector.

At first, I was annoyed. I had already purchased a whole bunch of 30-pin charging cables for my iPad 3, along with matching square white Apple 10W to USB charging adapters. So now I had two types of connectors and two types of USB adapter cables to charge Apple products with.

As if this wasn't maddening in and of itself, I own Android devices which of course also need charging. My wife uses a Galaxy Nexus phone and I also carry around a Nexus 7 tablet in addition to my iPhone 5 when I travel. Both of which use the Micro-USB "Micro B" charging connector which was established as a standard by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2009.

So at a bare minimum, when I went on a business trip, I had to bring two types of cables with me, and two chargers. If I wanted to travel with my iPhone, my iPad  3 and the Nexus 7, and keep them all going in rotation, I would need two chargers and three cables. That's not counting the charging brick and barrel connector cable for my Lenovo laptop either.

Oh yeah. There's also the full-size, 10" Android tablets. Every single manufacturer of those things uses a different type of charging/sync connector. How come?

It has to do with wattage.

It turns out that Micro-USB has a limitation as to how many watts it is safely rated to carry.

The Apple Lightning connector can safely deliver at least up to 12W before the wire connections encounter any heat issues. We don't know the actual limitations because Apple hasn't published them.

In comparison, Micro-USB can only safely carry up to 9W of power. Many of the newer, large screen Android phones and the iPhone 5 require 5W. Android tablets and the full-size iPad as well as the Microsoft Surface require 10W. 

This is why you see all sorts of crazy variations of barrel connectors and other bizarre stuff on different OEM tablets (SONY being a prime offender in this area) because there is no established standard for 10W charging. 

And yes, I am aware the Google Nexus 10 uses a Micro-USB Mini B port. It also can only charge at a much slower 5W, like the iPad can, if needed. 

So when designing the iPhone 5, the current iPod Touch and the latest iPads, the company had to take into consideration the need for reducing space on the device PCB for the charge/sync connector as well as increased wattage requirements for tablets.

They didn't want to have two different types of connectors for their mobile device products, they wanted to have one. 

So Micro-USB Micro B could never have been in the running anyway to replace the aging Apple 30-pin flat connector that was originally introduced with the third-generation iPod in 2003.

The new connector not only needed to handle charging (with higher wattage requirements) and sync, but also needed to be able to talk to accessories in a device host mode for compatible Apple peripherals.

Now, I have definitely had my issues in the past with Apple using proprietary parts and connectors. There are things the company does in this area that are outright infuriating. In short, I really wish they would use more standardized stuff rather than use parts that result in nearly unrepairable products.

Much of this is done in order to make their products more miniaturized and streamlined, but some of their usage of proprietary parts and connectors is done because... Well, because they can.

It's obnoxious.

However, this is not the case with the Lightning connector. I have to give the company credit for designing a better charging and syncing connector standard when I see it.

Leaving the wattage issue completely out of it, the Micro B connector is just... bad.

I can't tell you how many 12-volt car to Micro-USB Micro B cigarette adapter chargers I have destroyed from the sheer act of constantly inserting and pulling the connector out of smartphones.

They are supposed to be rated for 10,000 cycles, but in actual practice I have seen them fail in far less inserts and pulls than that.

The Micro-USB Micro B connector did help the mobile industry get standardized on chargers. Back in March of 2008 I made an impassioned plea for handset and device manufacturers to move to it, because many were still using proprietary connectors of their own design.

Since then, and thanks to the ITU embracing the standard in 2009, virtually every handset and device manufacturer, save Apple, has moved away from proprietary connectors to the Micro-USB Micro B.

However, as a connector interface standard, Micro-USB Micro B leaves a lot to be desired.

The fact of the matter is that many OEM Micro-USB Micro B cables are poorly constructed, and will fail extremely quickly due to their "bent clamp" design.

There is also the issue that it's very easy to insert a Micro-USB Micro B cable "the wrong way." You literally have to closely eyeball the connector with the receptacle because it is trapezoid-shaped.

If you insert the cable upside-down enough times you will not only bend the connector on the cable itself, but also on the device's receptacle. This results in the very real possiblity of damaging your device outside of its warranty period due to regular wear and tear.

And by the way, the Apple 30-pin cable sucked for the same reason. It was particularly infuriating on the 2nd and 3rd-generation iPad, which had a slanted bottom and made lining up the cable extremely difficult, especially when kept in a protective case like an OtterBox.

I'm not going to lie. While I traded in my iPad 3 for an iPad 4 primarly because of the processor and GPU speed boost, the improved Wi-Fi reception/speed and the front-facing HD FaceTime camera, the move to the new charger connector was definitely an incentive to upgrade.

On a Lightning Cable, it simply isn't possible to insert it "wrong". There is no right side or wrong side up. You insert the connector, period. Both sides of the connector are identical, and the chip inside the cable figures out how to do the "inversion".

There's no precision lining up the edges or having to "eyeball". You plug it in. That's it. You can do it in low-lighted areas, or when sitting in a car seat. No unimpaired judgement is required when doing it. Have a bunch of cocktails at the airport lounge. Charge your device. No Problem.

Other than a barrel-shaped design, there's no other stupid-proof design for a charger connector in use today that even comes close to what Lightning offers. The only thing that could possibly supplant it would be magnetic induction, which would be wireless. And still, even wireless charging solutions have limitations.

The Google Nexus 10 can charge wirelessly using the current Qi standard, but it is a low-power induction technology that can only transfer 5W at this time. A future version of the standard will support 10W.  

Now, it is true that Lightning is a proprietary design, and Apple has neither offered to license it, nor open it up to the rest of the industry for use on competitors' products. The cables use chips which not only do the digital pin inversion, but also may have some sort of DRM logic and device authentication built into them which is clearly in Apple's best interests to protect. 

However, I beleive it would still be possible for Apple and an industry standards body such as the ITU to establish a version of Lightning as a broader connector standard.

This would only happen if Apple could somehow be satisfied that an open version of the Lightning cable did not contain a way to bypass the DRM/authentication logic they are currently using, perhaps by limiting the "Open" version of chip to simply charging and in the clear USB data transfer when connected to Apple devices.

Could the Lightning connector be adopted by the entire industry as the next device charging standard? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, iPad, iPhone, Smartphones, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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