Design, money, control: why Apple went with Lightning over micro USB

The new iPhone 5(s AAPL) brings a bunch of welcome hardware changes: who doesn’t want a faster processor, 4G radios, better camera, and so on? But there is a change that may cause a bit of a headache for users: Apple’s decision, after nine years, to move on from the wide, rectangular 30-pin connector it’s been using in all of its mobile devices. The new, smaller more elegant-looking Lightning dock connector has been something of a lightning rod for confusion and criticism for Apple in the days since the announcement. So I chatted with Kyle Wiens, who runs the electronic hardware-obsessed repair guide service iFixit, to find out more about the technical benefits of the new connector and why Apple made the change.

Apple’s selling points for the new connector: Lightning is 80 percent smaller than the old connector, and it’s reversible, so it doesn’t matter which way you put the plug in, unlike the old solution. The size issue is indeed the primary consideration, said Wiens in a phone call on Friday. But it’s not just about making room for more components into the new iPhone: there’s the future of its full mobile lineup Apple has to think about.

“Apple was running into limitations” with the current 30-pin dock, he said. “You can see with the iPod nano, the dock connector was the limiting factor” in Apple’s ability to shrink down the size of the company’s tiniest music player.

That makes sense, and we know there’s precedent for these particular kind of design considerations at Apple: see the decision to ditch the Ethernet port on the MacBook Air back in 2008.

But the change wasn’t only about design. It’s about bringing the entire mobile and Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad ecosystem (a program in which Apple certifies manufacturers’ hardware to work with its iDevice lineup) up to date, Wiens theorizes. “Thirty pins is a lot for a computer connector,” he said. Apple used that many because it was easier for accessory makers to be compatible and do more things with the iPod, and then eventually iPhone and iPad. (Here’s a handy chart explaining what each of the 30 pins is used for.)

“The new connector is moving from a combination of anolog plus digital to pure digital. They’re saying, ‘Hey, if you have an accessory, like a car stereo, you have to talk over USB or a digital interface,” said Wiens. “They’re forcing accessories to be a bit more sophisticated.” Luckily, he added, that’s not really a challenge for most accessory makers any more the way it would have been nine years ago.

But if size is such an important concern, why did Apple come up with its own Lightning connector instead of using something small that almost everybody already has lying around, like micro-USB, which is already a standard in Europe? It’s very likely about money and control.

Though he admits it’s a “cynical view,” Wiens says a main benefit of going with a new connector like Lightning is Apple’s ability to charge “big bucks” to license the use of it to accessory and peripheral makers. He estimates through his talks with peripheral makers that Apple charges from $1 to $2 per device to make stuff compatible with the iPod, iPhone or iPad.

Apple, a famously controlling company, has a very clear view of future product roadmaps, and that includes what kind of connectors it does or does not want hooking up to its devices. The licensing model allows that.

We won’t know the true performance benefits of Lightning (is it really faster, as Apple says?) until the iPhone and new iPods start shipping and users get the chance to test them out. But we do know that thanks to the change, there’s a potentially large pile of e-waste headed for landfills over the next couple of years as hotel alarm clocks, old battery cases and cables will eventually be swapped out as Apple’s new wave of Lightning-capable devices grows in size.

Still, “they kept connector for nine years,” Wiens said. “Good on them for keeping it as long as they did.”