Thursday, 14 March 2013

Thunderbolt and Lightning (not particularly frightening)

A somewhat worn Apple 30-pin dock connector (left) with the new Apple Lightning Cable © 2013

When Apple launched the iPhone 5 in October 2012, they introduced a new interface cable along with it. The Lightning connector replaced the 30-pin dock connector previously seen on all iOS devices since the 3rd generation iPod in 2003 making almost a decade’s worth of iPod and iPhone docking stations and hi-fi accessories instantly obsolete. “Bloody Apple” has been the most common response to it from customers at my place of work, complaining that it is Apple “trying to get you to buy everything again”, but is it really that simple? Things rarely are. I’ll tell you why one of the most valuable companies in the world isn’t trying to expand its bottom line one $30 adaptor at a time.

A brief History of i

The first iPods, launched in 2001, featured a FireWire 400 interface to connect and charge the unit. This was an immanently sensible choice at the time, considering the tepid transfer speeds of the USB 1.0 standard (USB 2.0 would not appear on a Mac until 2002) and FireWire’s prevalence on Mac hardware.

iPod Third-Generation © Apple 2003
The 30-pin dock connector, introduced for the third-generation iPod in 2003, was a far-sighted attempt to bridge the cap between Mac and PC and helped generate an entire eco-system of compatible accessories. It was also flexible enough to be used not only for audio synching and charging, but for a generation of video and touch capable iPods and iPhones. For an interface that was introduced to market almost a decade ago, this is an impressive feat. There are not too many comparable interfaces still in widespread use after a decade.  
Solitaire © Apple 2003

But age alone is no reason to replace a useful interface. As good as it was, the 30-pin dock connector had its problems. I suspect many, if not most iPod and iPhone owners have experienced problems with their dock connectors as some point, from a large build-up of dust and lint, to a complete breakdown in connection. At the end of its life, my iPhone 4 would have trouble connecting to anything except a USB cable as clearly something had gone out of whack in my connector port. 

With the 30-pin connector’s fragility in mind, it makes sense for Apple to replace the it with something else. The Lightning connector is much more robust and physically much smaller. It is indicative of Apple’s designers planning for a future with products jam-packed with features. The dock connector on the iPhone 4s, for example, took up a substantial amount of space at the bottom of the device. With a future involving who-knows-what tech advances, Apple’s engineers will need all the space they can get.

iPhone 4S tear down ©

Not to mention the connector itself can be inserted whichever way you please. This is most pleasing for those who have struggled late at night or early in the morning after an extended drinking session to charge their phones. It sure beats fumbling for the side with the little grey mark on it indicating “front”, which usually only appeared after turning it around three times.

“Bloody Apple”

But what would the best engineers paid shit-loads of money at the most valuable company in the world know? Their expertise is obviously lacking according to outer-suburban aspirational battling working families. 

Lightning connection on an iPhone 5 © 2013
“Bloody Apple. Why did they have to change it? They just want to make you buy everything all over again.” 

Of course. Apple’s brilliant strategy for market growth is to frustrate its customers and rely on the sale of $35 Lightning to 30-pin connector adaptors. Brilliant. I have attempted to put forward the technical and design reasons as to why this might not be Apple's strategy, but such attempts are ultimately futile. Customers are rarely interested in solutions, instead wishing to foist their particular world-view on others. Logic takes a long holiday when I argue that it would not be a particularly useful strategy for one of the most valuable companies in the world to “make more money” predicated on the sale of a $35 adaptor. Of course, selling millions of these adaptors would no doubt add to Apple’s revenues, but even the adaptors are surprisingly well-engineered, featuring a digital-to-analogue convertor for audio, meaning the production costs would likely be quite high for a small product. 

But this is all conjecture. The point is that it is third-party manufacturers who make their money selling the iPod and iPhone speaker docks and Hi-Fis, not Apple. Sure, Apple licences the Lightning connector out and takes a cut of royalties from the manufacturers, but that is the price of business. It is one of the reasons Apple are one of the most successful companies in the world. In none of this is there some sort of conspiracy to “make you buy everything all over again”.

Have you heard of ATRAC?

Over the past decade, Apple has been one of the most consistent companies in its support for established interfaces. Whereas most PC and laptop manufacturers change their chassis and interfaces every second week, Apple has kept much the same selection of ports on its machines for years. 

Unlike, say, Sony. Remember HiFD? No, neither do I. Or ATRAC, Betamax, SACD, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro Duo, that PS Vita storage stick, UMD, a bazillion different and expensive lithium-ion camera batteries, or a plethora of different device connectors? No. Didn’t think so. While Apple certainly uses its own proprietary interfaces, at least they keep them around for many years.

Introducing the Belkin ADB-USB adaptor

Much like any other tech launch, when products do away with existing connectors, the clattering classes sometimes bemoan these changes as the end of days. The same occurred with the launch of the first Legacy-free PC, the iMac G3. No floppy drive? Outrageous! Apple’s clearly in cahoots with the USB industry! Or what about Apple’s transition from PowerPC to Intel processors (Is the switch to Intel Jobs’ worst business decision of his life?)?

Many years have passed since these events took place and we know everything worked out fine for both Apple and its customers. Of course those superior beings who made use of the classic Apple Extended Keyboard were forced to buy Apple Desktop Bus-to-USB adaptors. Oh well. It still works on Mountain Lion!

Apple Extended Keyboard © 2012

Some criticised Apple for not choosing a standard connector such as micro-USB for its iPhone/iPod connections. This is certainly a valid point, however an open standard such as micro-USB would not afford Apple the control it desires over third-party accessories. Some complain about this level of control, however Apple executives have said time and time again that it is about them creating the best possible “user experience from end to end”. It was part of Steve Jobs’ philosophy and is no doubt a major influence on Apple’s designers and engineers. A controlled “eco-system” is their way; if you don’t like it, buy a Samsung.

Lightning doesn’t all

In my opinion, the biggest disappointment of the transition to the Lightning connector has been the slow roll-out of cables and accessories. For starters, the cable supplied with the iPhone 5 is far too short and longer cables aren’t yet readily available in retail stores. Only a couple of docks are for sale in stores, although this will likely soon change. For retailers, it has been a pain selling speaker docks with the 30-pin connector, with many brought back after Christmas with customers unaware of the interface changes ("My new iPod/iPhone didn't fit in the thing! It must be broken! I want money/refund/time to complain!")

The other disappointment has been the change in digital AV adaptors. The folks over at Panic were doing some experiments with the Lightning to Digital AV adaptor and found its performance left much to be desired, especially compared to the 30-pin digital AV adaptor. After tearing one apart, they found complex electronics including 2GB RAM and an ARM processor. These would likely be performing video encoding on the fly. Whatever it’s doing, that $50 adaptor is much more powerful than my first PC, a $2,800 Acer 486/DX that came with Windows 3.1 for Workgroups over 73 HD floppies*.
*slight exaggeration

Thankfully, it seems Apple, or someone intimate with Apple, are aware of the less-than-stellar quality of the video output and the technology is good enough to be improved without hardware being drastically updated.

Galileo Figaro  

The Lightning connector is a sensible step for Apple. From an engineering point of view, it is far more robust than its 30-pin predecessor and far more compact, making the most of the limited space inside iOS devices. Far less than being about forcing customers to “buy everything again”, it is about having a connector for the future that is both flexible and practical. 

Naturally any change in an almost ubiquitous interface will result in frustration, but there are ways around these changes if you want to use your existing gear. If I gaze into my crystal ball, I can see future interface changes generating much less consternation with wireless sound becoming increasingly common, either via Bluetooth or AirPlay. This type of technology doesn’t care what dock connector you have, it only cares if you have wireless. 

When Apple’s highly-paid engineers make this kind of change in connector, I have no doubt they are making it for the best of reasons. For a company always pushing the design envelope, they have made precious few mistakes (OK: this, this, this and this were pretty bad) so I will mainly trust their judgement, rather than becoming argumentative with a salesperson in an Australian outer suburban retail outlet. 

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