$1000 and the iPhone 13 Pro is still stuck at USB2 speeds. Never mind the $1100 iPhone 13 Pro Max. Why? Because, Lightning, and — wait for it — Lightning has pretty much been stuck at USB2’s half a gigabit per second, since… 2012. That, in spite of Apple adding 10-bit ProRes HDR video recording back in September. With hardware acceleration fast enough to encode 6GB a minute — a minute! — and a new storage system fast enough to save it, but no… no as in nothing approaching… a new I/O system fast enough to transfer it. So, you can now record the highest quality video of any phone on the planet, you just can’t get it off any faster than the cheapest phone on the block. Any faster than hitting that subscribe button so we can build the best community in tech together…
So, what do you do? I mean, besides hitting the button and cursing in the comments, obviously. Well, if you’re Apple… If you’re Apple, maybe you kill the now 10 year old Lightning connector. Summary de-resolution it just to get it off the grid. And then you replace it… maybe with Lightning 2… Maybe with USB-C or even Thunderbolt… Or maybe, just maybe, something that could take the iPhone and us forward into the next 10 years?
Well, I mean, Apple could just make Lightning faster. Lightning 2, literal electric boogaloo. Wikipedia it. If you use the OG Lightning, you’re stuck at OG Lightning speeds. Use Lightning 2, and you get 5 Gigabits per second, maybe 10, hell, 20.
Everyone on Tech Twitter and tech YouTube would lose our collective minds, of course. Even though there’s a non-trivial, set theoretics intersection of people, who both complained about the iPhone being locked to a proprietary Lightning connector for years instead of USB-C, while at the same time demanding Apple hard to switch the Mac back from USB-C charging to the proprietary MagSafe connector. More on that in a minute, but hey, the nerd heart wants what the nerd heart wants.
I’m just not going to go all Giant Green Rage Monster about it because I just don’t think it’s that likely. Or, more to the point, I think if a faster Lightning was the sum total of Apple’s ambitions for the next decade of connectors, they would have done it last year with the faster ProRes engines and faster storage controllers. There’d be no reason to torture creative pros, the exact people they’re targeting with so many of these new Pro capabilities, with a connector that’s still so… incapable.
Especially because It would also only solve for the speed problem for a very small group of power users, not the convenience problem for a much larger group of mainstream users. The ones who really just want one standard plug, one standard cable to rule them all. You know, Ash nazg thrakatulûk USB-C krimpatul
And I beg you no pardon, because the European Union, who you may remember from such regulatory cock-ups as the browser ballot, cookie disclosures, and GDPR, is pushing for USB-C to be required on all mobile devices. That doesn’t mean Apple couldn’t keep Lightning or add Lighting 2, it just means they’d have to add USB-C as well. And more on that in a hot, superset’ed minute. And, who knows, maybe the U.S. will also make similar plans as part of their recent big tech plan of attack. By which I mean their plan is basically — attack.
So, USB-C is the obvious answer then, right? Just the super-easiest, barely an inconvenience-est solution. Now, with USB, the letters represent the type of plug. So, USB-A for old computers, USB-B for old peripherals, USB-B mini and micro for old, mobile devices. And the number represents the capability, like data transfer speeds… even though USB keeps changing those what those numbers mean, probably because they’re in a heated battle with HDMI over who can be the absolute worst plug authority on the planet. Either way, by USB-C we’re talking specifically about the shape of the plug. But every time Apple has switched an iPad from Lightning to USB-C, it’s also come with an increase in speed as well. Barest minimum up to 5Gbps.
So, USB-C would solve for speed… but also for convenience. You wouldn’t have to keep a specific cable around just to charge your iPhone any more. You could charge it with the same cable as your iPad Air… your Nintendo Switch, your partner’s Google Pixel, whatever. Use that cable between devices as needed, maybe even keep only one to travel with. We’ll have achieved true port peace in our time.
And the funny thing is… The hilarious thing is… There’s a multiverse of madness out there where Apple switched to USB-C instead of Lightning all the way back in 2012 to begin with. I mean, the same team at Apple that developed Lightning also pretty much handed the C spec over to USB as well.
See, Apple was working on the iPhone 5, which was going to be way, way too thin to fit the old 30-pin dock connector. The one they’d switched to from FireWire almost 10 years before. The one that and they were just… beyond based… rewiring and cross-wiring just to keep up with more modern protocols. And there was already a bunch of talk from a bunch of companies about replacing the old USB-A standard, and just nuking all the USB-B, mini, and micro variants from orbit at the same time. Mass driving them off of other electronics and out of existence. But, surprise surprise, Apple doesn’t all the time play nicely with others, and has less than zero patience when dealing with the slow pace of standards bodies. Like negative patience, really.
So, the USB-C movie had a ton of other writers who’d submitted various drafts and proposals, but Apple’s connector team came in, and just handed Intel a script and said: make that. Even knowing at that point there was no possible way it’d ever be ready in time for the iPhone 5. Maybe MacBook Stealth, the one port-to-rule-them-all 12-inch MacBook that ended up shipping as just MacBook in spring of 2015 — and as the first USB-C laptop.
But Apple wasn’t about to wait two and half more years than they absolutely had to for the forum to finalize USB-C, not with iPhone 5 on deck, so the team also made Lightning. And they made it the Apple way. Slightly more water resistant, an outie instead of an innie, so it could be slightly smaller for even thinner devices in the future, but most importantly, even more standardized than USB-C would end up being, and way, way, way better managed.
Apple did screw up the initial transition by not having extra cables and adapters ready and available for the first couple of weeks after launch. And that just made people already beyond angry about suddenly being deported to dongle-town just to keep using their 30-pin car connectors and iPod boom boxes… just full on apoplectic. But 10 years of 30-pin was a long time, Lightning was inarguably a Quantum-level leap ahead, and no one had to worry about which Lightning cable had what data rate or charging speed, and no Google engineer had to personally test and review each and every one to see if it would fry your phone or, hopefully, not.
And, yes, absolutely, Apple also made money from licensing Dock and Lightning and its associated chipset through their MFi or Made for iPhone program. But the reality is, it’s never been more than pocket change compared to their massive, massive iPhone profits. If they just wanted the money, they’d make more selling Apple T-Shirts online, or, I dunno, checking Tim Cook’s sofa cushions. They also switched the Mac from MagSafe to USB-C for a few years there — and more on that in minute — and they’ve been switching iPads from Lightning to USB-C for years now. So proprietary really isn’t religion. It’s pragmatism. And what MFi really gave Apple was the one thing they value more than money — control. If Apple controls Lightning chip, it’s not like they control spice flow on Arrakis, but on a device with a battery as small as the iPhone, with no need to plug into computer peripherals, it means no one ever has to worry about a cable working, or worse, damaging the power management system. I just think we all wished they cared a little more about the quality and durability of the actual cable materials as well… Like, can we move everything to more affordable, braided cables already?
Anyway, when 2015 rolled around, and USB-C finally shipped on the 12-inch MacBook, there was no pressure, like zero pressure to push it to the iPhone as well. Because, it had been less than 3 years since the Lightning switch, and if you made people switch and double dongle up again that soon, they’d cut you.
But also because Lightning had already become pretty much ubiquitous thanks to iPhone sales volumes, USB-C was a nightmare hellscape of quality and compatibility issues, and all the rest of the real world was still stuck in USB-A and mini micro damnation anyway. And Apple couldn’t do anything about that other than contribute slightly to the mess with USB-C charging cables that were frustratingly data anemic.
Of course, Apple did eventually switch Lightning to USB-C… on the tail end of of the cable, the end that used to be USB-A. It took an aggravating amount of time for Mac users, especially since Apple switched basically all Macs to USB-C years ago, but PC users have always been the bulk of iPhone users and it took an aggravating amount of time for PCs to go USB-C…
Now, If Apple was going to switch the Lightning end to USB-C as well, arguably the best time would have been fall of 2017 with the iPhone X. It’d been 5 years since the 30-pin transition, and Apple was already going to flip the table on the iPhone with an almost complete modern redesign, including Qi-standard inductive charging, so why not dumpster fire Lightning along with the Home button? I mean, the iPad Pro was going to switch in the fall of 2018 anyway, right?
But no. Apple’s team weighed the pros and cons — or pros and controls — and they figured the switch made sense for a much bigger device that was meant to be used much more like a traditional computer, and would benefit from plugging in to traditional computer peripherals. But it just wasn’t anywhere nearly as compelling for a smaller device, given Lightning had a big enough ecosystem, far less complexity — partially because far less capability — and way fewer quality and power management issues. So, for the iPad, they chose compatibility over control, and for the iPhone, verse vica.
Even though, yes, Android phones were already standardizing on USB-C, Apple saw it as more of a step diagonally sideways than truly forward.
Which brings us to 2021, when Apple announced the iPad mini was moving from Lightning to USB-C, and then immediately hard trolled every creative pro on the planet by delivering ProRes to the iPhone 13 Pro, without any way to deliver that ProRes from the iPhone 13 Pro, not any faster than Lightning and half a gigabit per second.
And so, now, today, in 2022, almost a decade after Lightning, the same 10-year doomsday clock Apple gave the 30-pin is ticking down just minutes away from midnight. And there’s an inarguable reason to make the chance, could Apple finally, the Rock-level FINALLY, be ready to switch from slow Lightning to fast USB-C?
Yes, absolutely. But… I just don’t think they will. Much as I hate it, I think Apple sees USB-C as a 6-year old standard that may be ok for a few more years, but just isn’t something Apple wants to make a similar decades-long commitment to, like they did with 30-pin and Lightning, for the next 10 years. I think they want to give the people more… and, yeah, maybe hold onto that control where they can.
Which is why I also don’t think they’ll switch to Thunderbolt either, much as I would personally love it. All caps, get down on one knee, marry it, birth a whole entire generation of cyberpunks, love it.
See, Thunderbolt is another protocol Apple worked on with Intel, basically taking light peak, swapping optical for good old copper, and productizing it into something they could combine with USB-C, starting with the 2016 MacBook Pros. And Intel has eased up on Thunderbolt licensing, if not Thunderbolt certification, but USB3 and USB4 include support for dual mode-ing it in the spec. Hell, Apple even brought Thunderbolt to the the 2021 iPad Pro along with M1., and can go up to a blistering, just ProRes ripping 40 Gbps.
But Thunderbolt means surfacing PCIe lanes and adding a Thunderbolt controller to A16, the way they added two to M1 and three to M1 Pro and Max. And unlike a Mac or iPad, Apple still fights for every millimeter of volume inside an iPhone, and every milliamp of draw on its power system. Hell, we haven’t even seen Thunderbolt on an Android phone yet, and they’ll try to spec wreck each other every chance they get.
It’s also not any fresher than USB-C, not really. Which is why I think Apple’s going to keep it relegated to their non-ultra mobile Pro level devices. The ones that really benefit from Thunderbolt peripherals in a multitude of ways. And, yeah, thanks, I hate that too.
Lightning 2 (Redux)
But the idea of Thunderbolt is still interesting. More specifically, the idea of supersetting USB-C is super interesting. That’s what some Android phones do already for their high speed charging systems. You need their proprietary cable to get the quick adaptive super warp turbo speeds, but if you don’t have it handy, you can fall back to a generic peasant USB-C cable cannibalized from any another device… Except an iPhone. But at least you can fall back to any generic peasant USB-C cable, and that’s compelling.
So, Apple could make Lightning 2… and just so happen to use USB-C as the plug. That way, anyone buying Lightning 2 knows they’re getting a cable that’s 100% designed to just work with their iPhone, but if they don’t have it handy, they can use any old generic peasant USB-C cable in a pinch. It’ll make all us nerds ecstatically happy, and maybe even get the EU and DOJ just all the way off their backs about it. Just completely off of those things.
I don’t know if that would reduce confusion or just add to it, like… be the best of both worlds or just the worst, but you tell me?
Then, there’s something not quite as super easy, but maybe significantly more convenient? Especially for people with accessibility needs, like low or no vision or motor skills. Something that doesn’t require a tiny plug get jammed into a tiny port, with tiny pins that can get all gunked up. Something… I don’t know… maybe magnetic? Maybe just like MagSafe?
Yes, the exact same type of connector a huge swath of tech nerdom just celebrated Apple switching back to from USB-C on the Mac. Kinda, I mean, Apple left it so we can still do data transfer and charge through USB-C on the Mac, but you all know what you did!
Now, everyone likes to call it wireless charging, but it’s not like wireless internet. It still requires physical contact either for pins or through coils. Where wireless internet doesn’t require you to drop your laptop or phone on top of the router to actually work. But, not my terminology clowns, not my consistency circus.
So, anyway, MagSafe on the Mac, then and now again, use magnets for alignment and pins for power transfer. On the Apple Watch, where it’s technically not called MagSafe but so really is, it uses magnets for alignment and inductive coils for power transfer. Magnetic alignment making the less efficient inductive charging slightly less less efficient. Same for the very different type of MagSafe Apple introduced for the iPhone in 2020. Magnet and coils. There have been rumors about MagSafe for iPad as well, but so far only the SmartConnector, which is basically MagSafe on easy mode for keyboards. MagSafe 3 for the latest MacBook Pros, which sticks with magnets and pins, is even one of the first implementations of USB-PD 2.1, or ultra-high power delivery. And yes, USB has different numbers for data transfer and for power delivery capabilities, because it was apparently neither designed by nor for actual human beings. But whatever.
Point being, MagSafe can bring the juice, either through pins or inductively. But can it bring the data? Because so far, all we’ve seen is that keyboard functionality on the iPad smart connector, and case color recognition on the iPhone MagSafe. In other words, nothing to light our data dreams on fire, much less our ProRes fantasies.
And yeah, sure, either through pins or purely wirelessly, likely through some combination of ultra wide band and point-to-point Wi-Fi. The latter of which would also make Apple exempt from the EU’s proposed regulation, because it only covers physical ports, not inductive or wireless.
And there have been rumors of the iPhone going full on — full off! — portless for a while now. Same with Google’s Pixel and other phones. Some crazy ass Android concepts have even shipped port loose and connector free for years already.
Now, me, personally, I’m still all Battlestar Galactica, all… OG Matrix about this stuff. I want a hardline. So do most creative pros and developers who spend so much time debugging so much code. It would also complicate device recovery and restore, like DFU mode. That’s rumored to be the reason the Pixel didn’t go portless years ago. But Apple just removed the service port from the Watch, and is apparently using some hot new wireless connector internally now anyway, so maybe that’s getting closer to a solved problem?
Going with MagSafe would also reduce hardware complexity, improve water resistance — mainly because people keep getting the ports wet and then plugging in, causing shorts — and allow for that incredibly intoxicating, totally addictive magnetic thunk when you hook up.