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Flashback: The Lightning connector was ahead of its time but is now obsolete

Flashback: The Lightning connector was ahead of its time but is now obsolete

Flashback: The Lightning connector was ahead of its time but is now obsolete

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The iPod was revolutionary not because it could play MP3s, but because of how easily it made it possible to organize and load an entire music library into a pocket-sized device. There were MP3 players before it, including those with more storage – as that infamous Slashdot comment mentions, the Creative Nomad could hold more songs. However, in typical Apple fashion, it was ease of use that made the iPod so successful.

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Part of the credit goes to iTunes, of course, but we think the connector was important too. After all, you need to transfer gigabytes of songs from your computer to the player. The first Nomad launched with a parallel port (you may have heard it also referred to as a “printer port”), later models moved to USB (and some featured FireWire).

The Creative Nomad Jukebox was released in September 2000 with a 6 GB hard drive (1 GB larger than the original iPad). However, it only had a USB 1.1 port, which topped out at 12 Mbps. It would take over an hour to fill the internal storage using this slow connection.

Instead of USB, Apple chose FireWire for its first iPod in 2001, a connector that had only recently been adopted on Macs. FireWire tends to be named after the speed it supports, for example FireWire 400 operates at 400 Mbps. This is exactly the 400 Mbps variant that was used in the first iPod and it is almost as fast as the maximum USB 2.0 speed of 480 Mbps.

The third-generation iPod replaced FireWire with a proprietary 30-pin Dock connector. This carried over to early iPhones since the connector handled all major use cases – charging and data transfer, as well as supporting some accessories.

After nearly a decade of using the 30-pin connector, Apple wanted something more modern, something sleeker. It happened with the iPhone 5 in 2012 and it was called Lightning. And that made people angry.

A whole ecosystem has formed around the 30-pin connector, it was found for example in iPod compatible speakers, it was found in cars and even in hotel rooms. Imagine hearing that new iPhones and iPods aren’t compatible with the head unit in your car or the speakers you bought for every room in your hotel.


Speaker docks were a popular accessory that worked with iPods and iPhones

Speaker docks were a popular accessory that worked with iPods and iPhones

Speaker docks were a popular accessory that worked with iPods and iPhones

There were adapters, of course, but these are never ideal. To appease the anger of its customers, Apple has promised not to change adapters for at least a decade. And when it comes to iPhones (and now discontinued iPods), Apple has delivered on that promise.

After the introduction of Lightning, some older device accessories required adapters
After the introduction of Lightning, some older device accessories required adapters

Despite some loud rumbles against USB-C, Apple is actually an early adopter of the connector. However, the USB-C standard wasn’t finalized until 2014, which was too late – Apple wanted to retire the 30-pin connector as soon as possible.

So what is Lightning, anyway? It is a connector – male plug on the cable side, female on the device side – which is quite small since it has reduced the number of pins from 30 to only 8 (for comparison, USB-C has 24 spindles).

Flashback: the Lightning connector

In fact, there are 16 pins on a Lightning plug, but they are in a mirrored configuration, so usually only 8 are used. This allows the plug to be inserted in two orientations, avoiding the USB curse – you may have heard the old joke that it takes three tries to plug in a USB connector the right way round.

With only 8 pins available, the maximum data transfer speed is the same as USB 2.0, the 480 Mbps mentioned above and not much better than the original FireWire ports of early iPods.

But remember there are 16 pins on Lightning, it’s just that most devices only have 8 pins in their sockets. There are exceptions like the iPad Pros (before switching to USB-C), which had 16-pin Lightning plugs. This enabled support for USB 3.2 Gen 1, aka 5 Gbps, speeds. As far as we know, a specific card reader is the only device using it and it only worked with iPad Pros. Apple never released a Lightning to USB 3 cable, for example.

The only Lightning accessory that supports USB 3.2 Gen 1 speeds
The only Lightning accessory that supports USB 3.2 Gen 1 speeds

When unveiling the iPhone 5 in 2012, Phil Schiller called Lightning “the modern connector for the next decade”. Well, that decade ended last year – it’s time for a new connector.

The iPhone 5 introduced the Lightning connector to the world - a 'modern connector for the next decade'
The iPhone 5 introduced the Lightning connector to the world – a “modern connector for the next decade”

Apple is mostly there, all Macs have USB-C, now all iPads do too, even the new Apple TV remote uses it. That leaves things like AirPods, some Apple keyboards and mice, and, of course, the iPhone.

Lightning’s days are numbered, Apple has already confirmed that the iPhone will switch to USB-C, although the exact date has yet to be made official. Unofficially, analysts believe that will happen this year, before the end of 2024 deadline imposed by the EU.

Apple remembers the switch to the 30-pin connector and how it made many accessories obsolete. This was actually one of the arguments he made against adopting USB-C, many accessories and cables using Lighting will soon go to waste. There are adapters, of course, but these are never ideal.


USB-C to Lightning cable

USB-C to Lightning adapter for charging 1st generation Apple Pencils

USB-C to Lightning cable • USB-C to Lightning adapter for charging 1st generation Apple Pencils

On the other hand, USB-C has many advantages, which we detailed in last week’s post. Most importantly for Apple users is that they will be able to use one cable for everything rather than carrying around one cable for the MacBook and another for the iPhone.

There have been embarrassing times in the past when new MacBooks only had USB-C ports, but new iPhones only came with USB-A to Lighting cables. And the 10th generation iPad, which supports the original Apple Pencil but doesn’t have the correct port to charge it, so it needs an adapter.

Maybe future iPhones will finally break the 30W barrier and support proper fast charging. And maybe with enhanced video output capabilities they will enable the Stage Manager desktop experience. Or maybe not, USB-C has many capabilities, it’s up to Apple to decide which ones it wants to use.

Tech

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