Hail the Lowly Connector

Nothing makes a consumer appreciate a connector more than not having one. I learned this lesson the hard way by misplacing the connector that attaches to the charger that powers my camera's lithium-ion battery. There was one — exactly one — compatible charger available at Best Buy, and it was more than $40. Luckily for me, it doesn't require a connector.

As I've been reading reviews of {complink 379|Apple Inc.}'s iPhone 5, one pesky little criticism keeps cropping up: the connector. It sounds pretty innovative, actually: There's no right-side up or upside down — you can insert it either way. It doesn't, however, connect to the old iPod/iPad/iPhone accessories, docks, or chargers.

If you are already set on the iPhone 5, this detail won't deter you. But The New York Times disses Apple for this incompatibility:

Apple calls its replacement the Lightning connector. It's much sturdier than the old jack, and much smaller — 0.31 inch wide instead of 0.83. And there's no right side up — you can insert it either way. It clicks satisfyingly into place, yet you can remove it easily. It's the very model of a modern major connector. Well, great. But it doesn't fit any existing accessories, docks or chargers. Apple sells an adapter plug for $30 (or $40 with an eight-inch cable “tail”). If you have a few accessories, you could easily pay $150 in adapters for a $200 phone. That's not just a slap in the face to loyal customers — it's a jab in the eye.

I'm not an iPhone owner, so this doesn't affect me. I do have one charger, each, for our iPod Shuffle and Nano.

I have a connector problem with just about every device I've ever owned. Instead of following the advice of the organized people in my life and labeling each connector with masking tape or peel-off labels, I have a tangle of old connectors that I threw in a box “in case I need it.” As I searched through this tangle for the camera connector, I discovered connectors for our old Palm Pilot, several Game Boys, two monitors, three printers, several laptops and desktops, a half-dozen cellphones, and a number of things I can't identify. (One of those things is scary-big and I don't remember owning anything that large, but in addition to being disorganized, I'm also forgetful.) When I can't find the connector, I need I go to Plan B (also known as Best Buy.)

Every time I attend EDS – a trade show focused on IP&E vendors – I'm amazed at the technology advancements in connectors. I admit to taking connectors for granted in my personal life — just one more thing to keep track of — but in my professional life, I'm in awe of this stuff.

For every product and application you can think of there is a specific connector. They get smaller, bigger, have more pins, have fewer pins, get faster, more efficient, shorter, longer, thinner, thicker, and more rugged. Some can't be dislodged by wind or water and others just snap away. I used to think OEMs picked unique connectors just so they could sell more stuff that works with them. This may be true among some products (game console makers, I'm talking to you) but the engineers that design connectors never fail to come up with a solution to a problem I didn't even know I had. So Apple's decision is a big deal. (And I just need to get organized.)

Among Apple-philes, this incompatibility is just another opportunity to own more Apple stuff. For the car makers, hotels, and kiosks that provide Apple i-chargers/i-docking stations for their customers' convenience, what will they do now? The iPhone 5 is likely to be the best-selling phone in the world, or at least reach a scale that's worth their attention. Will they invest in an adapter or upgrade for the iPhone 5?

All because of a single connector.

This kind of stuff makes me nuts, but I'd like to hear from you. Do you think Apple's new connector is a sales tactic, or does the iPhone 5 set the next standard?

12 comments on “Hail the Lowly Connector

  1. bolaji ojo
    September 21, 2012

    Even though I expected Apple to change the connector, I was still surprised at the move but we need to understand why. This company is a profit-making machine and it will explore every opportunity to add to its coffers. That's where the lightning connector comes in. It's not designed to make the system better, notwithstanding what Apple says. It's meant to puff up sales.

  2. bolaji ojo
    September 21, 2012

    A quick follow up. Apple's action also shows that you can't ignore some components because they are not as interesting as semiconductors. Interconnects, passives and electromechanical can be jazzed up if an OEM stops seeing them as generic parts.

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 21, 2012

    My thought this was another way to drive up sales and there's nothing like a captive audience to do that. A connector is a brilliant way: case in point: I can't use my camera without the charger and I can't use the charger without the connector. Viola! Two new accessories I have to buy unless I want to buy li io batteries every few months. Nobody ever accused these guys of being dumb

  4. _hm
    September 21, 2012

    @Barbara: This is an essential requirement for modern technology. These are connections for high spped serial. It give engineer much more power to connect much faster data trasfet devices.


  5. elctrnx_lyf
    September 23, 2012

    I don't think this provide any new benefits to the user. Everyone having different product with a dock for the current iPhone have to get a new adapter cables. Apple is not really helping any one with these designs.

  6. Cryptoman
    September 23, 2012

    This is exactly the kind of move that drives loyal customers away from a brand. Money does not grow on trees and buyers expect to be able to use all the accessories they have already paid for. Therefore, 'backward compatibility' is really important to maintain customers' trust. Although palying the connector game is the easiest way of making more money, it is also the easiest way to lose existing customers. It is a very dangerous risk to take in my opinion. I am pretty sure the existing customers will be adamant to buying new accessories for their new device. Who knows, maybe there will be a new and 'better' connector coming in a few months with yet another iPad! Apple may simply be testing the reaction of the market with this unexpected move. After all, it is rich enough to lose some customers and to perform such costly experiments with its new products, right?

    I don't think Apple is targeting a new and superios connectivity standard here. It is all about making more money. There is already a good connectivity standard called USB. Why didn't Apple go for that in the first place? It didn't do that intentionally to force customers to spend money on Apple-only hardware.

    Another interesting thing about the iPad is that the Bluetooth wireless modem it has on board supports only voice. You cannot pair another Bluetooth device to exchange data with an iPad at all. If there is someone who has managed to do this, I would be interested to find out. By using Bluetooth you can achieve high speed and reliable connectivity to many standard devices but Apple did not want to allow that purely for commercial reasons. As you can see, good connectivity options are already there but Apple has other (profitable) plans in mind it seems.

    Changing an interface and achieving a global adoption is an indication of technological improvement like in the case of the USB standard. I very much doubt that Apple made this connector change to introduce a new global standard in connectivity. Apple is not about standardising: it is about differentiating no matter how much it costs to whom as long as the customers are willing to pay.


  7. Himanshugupta
    September 24, 2012

    @Barbara, you are true that we all are already fed up with carrying so many connectors. Though, i do not have iPhone and do not intend to buy any but i think that atleast the connectors should be backward compatible. On other hand, if a disruptive technology is introduced then things can change. I do not know what is better.

  8. Clairvoyant
    September 25, 2012

    Are there any improvements made with this new connector, or reasons why the old style would not work? It seems like Apple has changed the connector so they can make more moeny off adapter cables and new accessories specifically made for the new iPhone.

  9. Mr. Roques
    September 26, 2012

    I believe there are certain advantages with the new connector. You can read some here.

    I remember from my days in Eng. School that we wanted to use as many pins as possible because it was simpler, no need to do any fancy stuff. That obviously has its cons but it was definitely simpler (when programming). 

    I'm sure Apple suffered from that when it developed the original connector and not just Apple, every connector designer.



  10. Clairvoyant
    September 26, 2012

    It definitely is an improvement over the previous design, much smaller as well. I guess Apple figured the pros outweigh the cons in changing to this connector.

  11. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 26, 2012

    I'm willing to cede that the connector is an improvement. Being able to insert it without worrying it is upside down is one of them. I've read it's faster and fits securely. Still, it's one of those things you don't discover until after you've brought your shiny new iPhone home and tried to plug it in to your docking station…

  12. mpire
    September 27, 2012

    The first thing that came up to my mind is the fact that space is money, since the older connector was so big, putting an lighter connector gives more room on the iphone to put larger chips to provide a performance increase. At the same time it's a way to put more into their pockets, if i had an iphone certainly i would be mad about this because instead of buy one thing i have to buy two.

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