Flashback: the Lightning connector was ahead of its time but is now obsolete
The iPod was revolutionary, not because it could play MP3s, but because of how easy it was to organize and load an entire music library into a pocketable device. There were MP3 players before that, including ones with more storage space – as is notorious Slashdot comment mentions, the Creative Nomad could fit more songs. But in typical Apple fashion, it was ease of use that made the iPod so successful.
Part of the credit goes to iTunes, of course, but we also think the plug was important. After all, you need to transfer gigabytes worth of songs from your computer to the player. The first Nomad launched with a parallel port (you may have also heard it called a “printer port”), later models moved to USB (and some had FireWire).
The Creative Nomad Jukebox was released in September 2000 with a 6GB hard drive (1GB more than the original iPad). However, it only had one USB 1.1 port, which topped out at 12 Mbps. It would take over an hour to fill the internal storage using the slow connection.
Instead of USB, Apple chose FireWire for its first iPod in 2001, a connector that had only recently been used on Macs. FireWire is usually named after the speed it supports, e.g. runs FireWire 400 at 400 Mbps. It’s the exact 400 Mbps variant used in the first iPod, and it’s 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 the first iPhones, as the connector handled all major use cases – charging and data transfer, along with support for certain accessories.
After nearly a decade of using the 30-pin connector, Apple wanted something more modern, something sleeker. This came with the iPhone 5 in 2012 and it was called Lightning. And that made people angry.
An entire ecosystem had formed around the 30-pin connector, e.g. it was featured in iPod-compatible speakers, it was found in cars and even in hotel rooms. Imagine hearing that the 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
There were adapters, of course, but they are never ideal. To quell the anger of its customers, Apple promised not to change the adapter for at least a decade. And in the case of iPhones (and the now-discontinued iPods), Apple kept that promise.
After the introduction of Lightning, some older devices’ accessories required adapters
Despite some loud rumblings 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 the 30-pin connector off as soon as possible.
So what is Lightning anyway? It’s a connector – male on the cable side, female on the device side – that’s quite small, as it dropped the number of pins from 30 to just 8 (in comparison, USB-C has 24 pins).
Actually, there are 16 pins on a Lightning connector, but they are in a mirrored configuration, so only 8 are usually used. This allows the connector to be inserted in two directions, avoiding the USB curse – you may have heard the old joke that it takes three tries to insert a USB stick the right way up.
With only 8 pins available, the maximum data transfer rate is the same as USB 2.0, the 480 Mbps mentioned above, and not much better than the original FireWire ports on the first iPods.
But remember that there are 16 pins on Lightning, it’s just that most devices only have 8 pins in their connectors. There are exceptions like the iPad Pros (before they switched to USB-C), which had 16-pin Lightning connectors. This enabled support for USB 3.2 Gen 1 speeds, also known as 5 Gbps. As far as we know, a specific card reader is the only device that makes use of this, and it only worked with iPad Pros. For example, Apple has never released a Lightning to USB 3 cable.
The only Lightning accessory that supports USB 3.2 Gen 1 speeds
During the unveiling of the iPhone 5 back in 2012, Phil Schiller called Lightning a “modern connector for the next decade”. Well, that decade ran out last year – it’s time for a new plug.
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 remote for the new Apple TV uses it. This leaves things like AirPods, select Apple keyboards and mice, and of course the iPhone.
Lightning’s days are numbered, Apple has already confirmed that the iPhone will move to USB-C, but exactly when has not yet been made official. Unofficially, analysts believe it will happen this year, before the end of the 2024 deadline imposed by the EU.
Apple remembers the switch from the 30-pin connector and how it made a lot of accessories obsolete. This was actually one of the arguments it presented against adopting USB-C, many accessories and cables that use Lighting will soon end up in the bin. There are of course adapters, but they are never ideal.
USB-C to Lightning cable • USB-C to Lightning adapter for charging 1st generation Apple Pencils
On the flip side, there are many advantages to USB-C, as we described in last week’s post. The biggest one for Apple users is that they will be able to use one cable for everything instead of carrying a cable for the MacBook and another for the iPhone.
There were embarrassing moments in the past when new MacBooks only had USB-C ports, but new iPhones only came with USB-A for lighting cables. And the iPad 10th gen, which supports the original Apple Pencil, but doesn’t have the right port to charge it, so it needs an adapter.
Maybe future iPhones will finally break the 30W barrier and support proper fast charging. And perhaps those with enhanced video output capabilities will enable the Stage Manager desktop experience. Or maybe not, USB-C has many options, it’s up to Apple to decide which ones it wants to use.