Mobile // Mobile Devices
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9/24/2012
03:58 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Apple's Proprietary Lightning Beats Standard Micro-USB Mobile Connector

Giving the iPhone 5 a micro-USB port instead of the incompatible Lightning connection would have been the logical and considerate way to go, but that's not the Apple Way. Luckily for Apple, we iPhone, iPod, and iPad users are used to this kind of abuse and we'll put up with it. Even with the inconvenience and extra expense of Lightning--which offers little in return--most true believers won't ditch Apple for Android or Windows phones.

The tomatoes hurled at Apple during the iPhone 5 launch came in all shapes and sizes. It isn't innovative enough. The case colors are too easy to scratch off. It smells funny. (OK, I made that one up.)

But the one complaint that comes through the most loudly and the most clearly, even from Apple fans, is how the Lightning connector means every case, every connector, every dock built for previously cross-compatible generations of iPhones is now incompatible.

Fatal flaw? Not for Apple devotees.

David Pogue of The New York Times, in his own praising-with-faint-damns rundown of the iPhone 5, tsk-tsked the change in connectors thusly: "Apple has just given away one of its greatest competitive advantages."

There are a lot of reasons why the iPhone has been such a hard act to beat, but the one-size-fits-all docks aren't one of them. It's because no other company in this space gets away with making as few massively successful products as Apple does.

Apple's long-standing tradition has been to make a few things, make them well, and rev them individually. Only one new iteration of the iPhone has ever come out at a time. That's not a disadvantage when people choose Apple itself--as a whole--over a whole cosmos of other competitors. There might be some choice of, say, the iPhone 5 vs. the 4S, but that's more a matter of current-generation vs. previous-generation choices. it's a far cry from the likes of Motorola rolling out three different iterations of the new Droid Razr. (Not that I'm complaining. The Razr M is a great piece of work.)

Because Apple's product lineup has been traditionally so compact and consistent, it had a built-in competitive advantage when it came to aftermarket accessories that, coincidentally, took advantage of its highly consistent design. If a company had an idea for a phone add-on, any idea at all, it was all but guaranteed a return on its investment by making an iPhone iteration of said product. You can't go wrong offering something for the single most common make of cell phone on the market, period. Everyone who makes a phone case or a car dock knows this. There are many very expensive cars out there with 30-pin cables and docks built in.

It doesn't matter if the Lightning port is a different size, requires a new dongle, and forces the user to stand on one leg in the Dying Chicken yoga posture while charging the phone. The sheer number of people wanting an iPhone of any kind bulks far larger than the consistency of its connectivity.

The iPhone 5 isn't an impulse buy, at least not in price. Those prepared to shell out for the new phone--and there are millions of them, last I checked--are hardly hesitating at the idea of also ditching their old accessories. To them, it's all money well spent to be part of Apple's magic.

I understand Apple wanting to ditch a proprietary connector that has, in the company's mind, outlived its usefulness. But Apple's solution has been to come up with ... another proprietary connector, one where the big advantage to the end user is you don't have to orient the cable when plugging it in, because both ends are up. It's one less thing to fuss over when you're in a hurry. But I have some of the same cynicism for this that BYTE editorial director Larry Seltzer has for wireless charging. It's a minuscule solution to an equally minuscule problem. Is that worth ditching a perfectly good standard, micro-USB?

Then again, it's not as if such standards make phones remotely alike except in the most generic ways. Using micro-USB as a universal connector for charging and data? Good idea. It saves both manufacturer and end user a lot of hassle. But it hasn't led to a revolution in general phone design--nothing like an industry-wide (outside of Apple, anyway) agreement on the dimensions for phones and the placement of connectors as far as cases or docks go. Such things are one of the places where phone makers compete most fiercely in the first place, so why should they be expected to make up and be friendly about it?

I'm just as annoyed by all this inconsistency between product designs as the guy who discovers his travel mug doesn't fit into the cup holder for his new Hyundai. But the forces that keep these things disparate in form, and thus competitive, are far stronger than the impulses to unify them. Apple, not being beholden to such things directly, has always been free to do as it chooses, and this is no different.

If nothing else, this proves something I've suspected for years: You can't expect Apple products to be compatible with anything but other Apple products. And even then you might be dead wrong.

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