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What Apple’s new Lightning dock connector means for you

Want to buy one of the shiny new iPhones or iPods introduced by Apple(s AAPL) on Wednesday? There’s a pretty big but subtle change that will directly impact anyone who already owns any Apple mobile device: the new dock connector. If you have any Apple mobile accessories and want the iPhone 5, you’re going to need an adapter (which is not free) or buy one of the new Made for iPhone/iPod accessories coming out this fall if you want it to function with one of these new iOS devices.

The new connector in all the new iPods and the iPhone 5 is called Lightning (like Thunderbolt, get it?). It’s an 8-pin connector, which means it’s much smaller than the 30-pin connector Apple’s been using since it ditched FireWire almost 10 years ago. The benefits of the new connector, according to Apple:

  • It’s much smaller (80 percent, to be exact) — that means Apple can fit a lot more components into the smaller-than-ever new iPhone 5.
  • It’s reversible: you won’t have to pay attention to which side is facing up to plug it in.
  • It’s faster: Apple says data will flow faster over the new cable.

Obviously, this is annoying for current Apple customers. And it’s going to cost you at least $30 for a converter, or $20 for a new Lightning/USB cable. But, to be fair, Apple’s not doing this purely for the sake of making everyone buy new stuff. Apple is pretty merciless about cutting out technology it considers past its prime. See also: optical disk drives, Flash, Mini-DVI.

In the screengrab below, you can see  the different options for the new 8-pin converters and cables (which, yes, are really just little pieces of plastic and metal):

So, yeah, Apple’s going to benefit a bit too on these new sales. The accessories market is an area where Apple pulls in a ton of revenue, for iPods, iPhones and iPads. The company brought in nearly $2 billion to $3 billion selling accessories in fiscal year 2011 alone, according to some estimations. And much of those accessories that Apple makes, like cables and adapters, are almost pure profit, since they don’t cost that much to build in the first place.

The new dock isn’t terrible news for third-party accessory makers either. It means that for some of them, they will have the opportunity to sell you a whole new iPod dock, new cases, new chargers, or any accessory you currently use that connects via the port on the bottom of your iPod or iPhone. Apple said major brands like JBL, Bose, Bang & Olufsen, and Bowers & Wilkins are among the first that will make iPod stereo docks and other accessories with the new Lightning connectors. Those will be available, naturally, some time before the holidays.

This means the new iPad, introduced in March, is the only current generation Apple mobile device that still uses the 30-pin connector. But that’s obviously going to change soon. Any move Apple makes in regards to the iPhone, means it’s going to roll it out to all its mobile products. That means the next iPad (and rumored iPad mini?) will have the new connector too.

33 Responses to “What Apple’s new Lightning dock connector means for you”

  1. I was all set to move from my iPhone 4S to a 5 but as its not compatible with my car stereo, home stereo and music dock due to the new dock……. Forget it I will stick with my old iPod and iPhone 4S … Good move Apple ..NOT
    Sure use new technology by was it really necessary to change the dock physically

  2. I have one question. Remember how older iPods/iPhones came with a USB cable that we could use to charge and sync with a computer in the box with the product. Will this iPhone 5 come with a USB cable so that we can charge it? I don’t think Apple will send out boxes of iPhones and not give us a cable that we use to charge it. How would they expect us to charge our phone?

  3. RaptorOO7

    Perhaps Apple could have a trade-in program to get a credit towards the new cables or adapters. This would be the “green and responsible” thing to do. This way they don’t end up in a landfill and Apple can encourage customers to buy their cables. Of course we know they won’t.

  4. I actually think I am going to like the new dock connector size. Yeah, it sucks all the other chargers are going to go to waste but they’ve been using the same dock for several years now so it only makes sense. I think apple is very advanced with what they do so I think it’ll be fine. I’m sure too after awhile people may see the adapter prices go down maybe at places like Walmart or Bestbuy.

  5. Paul Billings

    How is this new much smaller connector going to fit in any kind of car attachment system that stands the iPhone/iPod Touch unit or any attachment angle the requires the unit to stand?

    I probably have over $1000.00 in various Apple Dock connectors, microphones, and earlier generation Apple Dock devices that are now useless without adapters or may not work at all and definitely will not pass video.

    Why can’t Apple just use normal Micro HDMI or USB cables like everyone else does – because they can’t charge customers $50.00+ for dongles and special cables just to attach up to USB or HDMI devices. But having adapters just to get to commonly needed ports is a smart way to get people to buy into the closed ecosystem of Apple AirPlay and force everyone else to as well who works/plays with Apple users.

    Apple is just a BIG consumer products company that spends billions of dollars a year on marketing and gets billions more free always positive press. Just look at the Gigaom website that has a whole menu tab next to the “home” tab dedicated to Apple exclusively.

  6. 1st there is no reason for faster data transfer as internal memory and components can hardly go faster then a standard USB… 2nd not it is not to get more space… or maybe just a little bit, not enough to make such a change really useful… 3rd yes it is to make more money as any peripherals maker will is paying royalties to Apple for that…

  7. Joey, Good point!!! I have heard it is an all digital out which probably means your better accessories that already do the D to A conversion for themselves will be fine HOWEVER (somehow seems nicer than a big but ;-)) the low end devices that used the analog out (pins 29 and 30) on the “old” connector will probably no longer be supported on new devices. For my own selfish gains I called Audssey (the maker of my dock) and was assured (in a thick indian accent that I have little to no faith in) that my dock will work with the new connector so long as I have the adapter.

  8. The adapter move is huge – it basically offers no benefits and pushes out the docks and cables that people already have loads of into the obsolete category. This means they can charge you again for all the accessories you already love and use, since now they don’t work anymore.

    “It’s faster.” Of course that’s the argument – the question is, is it fibre optic? And even then, do you need it to be that fast? If we’re just talking speed you can achieve that with a compatible cable in the same way USB’s have 3 generations of compatibility adapters. More speed is a poor substitute for the actual problem – formatting and restoring your iPod every time it connects to a new computer you want to sync with.

    If they have obsolete pins, that’s as simple as removing the copper. The majority of people use this adapter for docks and charging – not a whole ton is changing in terms of dock usage (music will sound the same), so if it’s not charging inside of 5 minutes, there isn’t a good justification for changing this.

    It’s about finding the right balance between economics and slapping your customer in the face, and my impression is the balance isn’t distributed.

    • Personally I’d be happy if it were faster. My iPhone backups take far too long. Transfers of new movies or TV shows or updating my music library take far too long. That would help to justify the switch.

      But it doesn’t sound like the new connector IS faster, or at least Apple didn’t make any mention of it? I mean the standard cable is clearly a USB 2.0 connector cable, not even USB 3.0, let alone Thunderbolt speeds.

      I personally like a bunch of the things we’ve been able to do with the old dock connector over time–various kinds of video out (analog and digital), the camera connection kit to allow you to transfer SD card photos to your iPhone, analog and digital audio, etc etc. But it looks like the flexibility to do many of those things is now gone. We won’t know for sure of course until we see the full range of adapters (apparently HDMI and VGA are coming for example), new docks start shipping, technical details leak, and some teardowns occur.

      But I’m not encouraged by the dropping of analog audio out myself…

      Still, the move had to happen. It was time to go to a smaller connector. Whether they chose the right 9 pins, we’ll know only in time.

      As far as the micro-USB standard, are Europeans going to start moving to the fatter micro USB-3.0 connector to get faster charging and faster transfer speeds? You know that’s a different connector right?

      • And then Apple will make it “Sorry, not compatible with this device” as they have with dozens of others. Why is there a need for a new standard to begin with that deviates not only from industry standards but there own as well?

        Economics, in a word.

      • RaptorOO7

        Unfortunately for us, it has been mentioned that Apple will NOT be allowing 3rd party cables (authorized ones) until at least 2013 so they will have a firm lock on the cable/adapter accessory market for the remainder of the year.

        I have little doubt the non-authorized market will crop up within a few weeks but the issue is how good will they be? Will they meet the sam quality of materials. I know made in China is actually not equal when you compare Apple Q/C vs knock-off Q/C. Still I welcome the quality $10 adapters or cables.

        Not to mention the .2m adapter/cable for $39 is down right criminal and simply extortion in terms of pricing.

    • RaptorOO7

      Most Apple users (like me) have numerous iPods, iPad’s and prior iPhones so we have numerous 30pin to USB cables. Plus if you have an iPod (pre-8pin) you don’t want to carry two cables in the car, office or on the go. Sad, annoying and a waste of OUR money.

    • Totally agree, two new cables for the price of one adapter seems easier to me. Leave one in the car and work, same as before. Whats the big deal, oh no new cable. Then don’t buy the new phone, simple as that.

  9. Richard W

    And what is wrong with USB? I’m not impressed, Apple have just helped fill the world with more plastic junk that ends up in landfills and floating around the oceans. ALL phones should be standard with mini USB and not even ship with chargers. So much for sustainability!

    • The ‘standard’ is micro-USB, not mini-USB.

      What does the cable on YOUR phone do? Charging is one thing, but in the case of smart phones, those connecting cables need to be able to transmit video – unless it can be transmitted wirelessly.

      • RaptorOO7

        Well my prior Android phones had the ability to use a micro-USB to HDMI cable so they certainly could do more than just charge.

        Apple could also have some consistency and good corporate citizenship by selling the micro-USB to Lightning or micro-USB to 30Pin adapters in the USA like they are REQUIRED to do in the EU and UK. But no Apple does not like to do that and won’t do it either. How many micro-USB cables do you have lying around, I know I have maybe 10-15 of them from various devices, so many in fact that it would be far more efficient for me to have one of the EU adapters.

        I for one will try and get some of those first, but I’m sure its not possible.

    • Stephen Gozza

      Apple includes massive functionality into their dock connectors.

      We will see how many of those features were ditched with Lightening, but having a 30-pin connected in my glove box and using steering wheel controls is much more useful than fiddling with a small MP3 player.

      Apple has already shown they can sync and charge with just the headphone port. Why not just use that if we want to reduce functionality and have less cables.

  10. Near as I can tell these adapters have to do at least D/A conversion for line-out audio, and who knows what else (no mention of serial or some of the other things that ran over the 30pin dock, although it does say video isn’t supported). So while it’s not rocket science, it’s far from a pin-pin adapter.

    By your definition, pretty much everything ever made would be “just little pieces of plastic and metal”.

    • Nope. Seems to me these adapters SHOULD do D/A conversion for the old iPod dock out function, but it appears they don’t. The Apple Store is pretty specific that “Video and iPod Out not supported.” Perhaps somebody other than Apple will make a converter that supports the older style analog audio out that I’m using in my car dock right now, but apparently the $29 Apple adapter does not. I assume it only passes through the digital audio signal that comes over the new lightning connector. As such it WON’T work with a lot of audio docks, car audio systems etc near as I can tell…

      • Oops. Spoke too soon. Sounds like the CNN story is wrong. The new adapters DO perform D/A conversion and support analog audio out. Nevermind…

        The iPod Out thing means it won’t support remote systems in cars though… not that that is all that big a loss really…