The iPhone 5's Lightning connector- 'simplicity', Apple style

Submitted by hc on Tue, 2012-10-02 10:30
hc's picture

It's a hell of a phone.

I've spent a bit of time reading through the iPhone 5's specs, poring over the reviews, and generally absorbing information about it. It's an amazing bit of kit. To create a thinner, lighter and much faster phone with a larger screen, connected to a more power hungry networking standard (4G), while not sacrificing battery life, is an engineering feat to be marvelled at. Although the details will never be forthcoming, the in-house design of the processor, closely matched to the operating systems needs, produces a finely crafted package that no other manufacturer can match. Hats off.

All the wrap-ups dedicated at least a paragraph to the Lightning connector. The basic pros / cons ran something like - can't plug it in wrong / have to junk all your existing peripherals. That's a highly simplistic overview of things, and the more I've thought about it, the more I've concluded that it's a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand on the part of Apple. To the end users, it is 100% Apple, simple, elegant. To makers of any 3rd party device that wish to interact with the iOS host device, it's anything but.

Lightning... seems simple.

On the surface, the connector seems like simplicity personified - 8 pins, symmetrical in shape, and thus unable to be inserted wrong, people has been wont to praise the elegance of it. And why not; it's a brilliant piece of design that only Apple could conjure up, solving a problem that people didn't realise they had. The 30 pin dock connector was fiddly, contains a number of pins that are now irrelevant (Firewire charging comes to mind). But unless you were in the dark, it was quite difficult to plug it in wrong. Some have carped about micro-usb, as a standard that Apple could have followed. This was never going to happen, it's a corner into which they would not paint themselves, and really no better than their old one. There's been a bit of whinging about the expense of the offered cables, but a general consensus that this will work itself out over time. I'm not so sure.

... is no such thing.

Under the hood, however, the connector is a *very* different, all digital beast. This means several things. First of all, the device plugged into the other side of it has to be digital too. Think about that for a second, and think about some of the things you, as an iOS device owner, have been able to plug your kit into, in the past. Speaker docks, car stereos, 3rd party chargers, cheap as chips sync cables that you left in an office drawer. A large part of the profusion of devices centred around the fact that the pinouts, both analog and digital, were well known, and that you could make a device that worked with those pinouts without necessarily getting Apple's permission. True, you would never get your device to be certified to "Work with iPhone" but unless you were on the bleeding edge of integration as a higher-end player, then it probably wasn't an issue. Here are the power pins, here are the USB data pins, here are the analog audio pins, and away you go: you could make a device that used some of them (USB, for syncing and charging), or others (power and audio, for a simple audio dock). The risk to the end user in buying devices was minimal, because it was a well-worn path of development. Apple may have lost out on the licensing fees assocaited with the branding, but end-users didn't seem to care.

Compare this ecosystem of devices to an early teardown of Apple's USB cable. Inside the Lightning connector itself, on the end of every cable, lives a digital circuit. It's a non-trivial thing. There's a chip, which has some important duties to perform, in terms of the initial handshake with the iPhone, to determine the orientation of the plug, and set up communication. Beyond that, details are scarce, but it is clear that things are nowhere near as simple as they were before. 

Concerns over this change may seem like a early days thing, and over time, unauthorised 3rd party accessories could, theoretically, be made to work with it. There are offers of Lightning-USB cables appearing on the supplier marketplace Ali Baba, but none are shipping yet. There would be some feverish work going on to reverse-engineer the cable's workings, and you can rest assured a few iPhones are probably getting fried in the process. I wish them the best of luck, but here's another theory about the new circuit / connector.

All your peripherals are belong to us.

The other part of any digital connection between host and client are the drivers. And those belong to Apple, 100%. Apple now have the ability to add, and remove, support for 3rd party devices by changes to the iPhone's software stack. I would not be surprised if every Lightning device has to identify itself to the host system, by means of the authentication chip that the connector needs to contain. Device IDs, in the USB standard, are used to assist in device driver selection, and I would be quite surprised if something similar wasn't at work here. The difference being that you don't get to install a driver for the device, Apple does. We're not talking about complex devices here, or at least devices that appear complex to the end user, we're talking about anything that connects to the port. Bought an unlicensed 3rd party charging cable? You might find that its no longer recognised, after an iOS update.

Works with old iPhones

OK, let's take the tin-foil hats off for a minute here. If Apple have, in fact, given themselves this degree of control, they may not choose to wield it all of the time. It may be that, over time, certain generic classes of device are sanctioned and become common, even without Apple's direct blessing, such as D/A converters for audio, 3rd party charging cables, and interconnects such as USB. Moving the audio jack to the bottom of the device may also be part of keeping some peripheral costs down, to allow cheap audio docks (minus charging). It is also true that the new connector is future-proof, in that it allows for classes of 3rd party devices that do not yet exist, nor will they exist without Apple's direct consent, which is the current situation for more complex peripherals.

The complexity of the cables means that costs, as borne by end-users, will also remain higher- you will be thinking twice before lending that co-worker a charging cable. In making this change, I have to wonder whether Apple looked at the universe of peripherals that their devices have spawned, noted how many they are not extracting licensing revenue from, and decided to craft a solution that put a stop to it.

A curtain raiser 

A small hint at the power Apple are taking back here, though, can be seen with the Camera Connection Kit that they sell for earlier devices. The kit is, essentially, a USB-On The Go adapter for the 30-pin dock connector. In its original incarnation, the kit allowed for some creative 3rd party solutions for getting media onto the iOS device from USB flash memory drives. By mimicking the file structure of a camera's memory card, users could 'import' media on the fly without using a network or computer sync connection. If you were travelling, and wanted to take a supply of media with you that exceeded the iPhone or iPad's capacity, then you could take a cheap, high capacity USB device with you, and 'sideload' media as you went, copying and then deleting files once they were no longer required.

With the iOS 4.2 update, Apple changed the way in which USB devices could work with the kit; in particular, it neutered the amount of power that devices were allowed to draw. It claimed, at the time, that it was concerned about battery life, and that's fair enough. But the change also had the effect of killing off a good chunk of the USB devices which could connect. Cameras connected via USB are almost always self powered, so the change only really affected unsanctioned uses of the device, such as USB drives. To me, the incident gives a hint as to where things are heading. Apple gives peripherals life, and Apple can take it away. 

Apple has been here before recently too, with the Mac's Thunderbolt cable. Another pure digital interconnect, also suffers from excessive cable cost, due to the complex nature of the circuits at each end of the cable. It, as a cable, does not have much to do, and in this case, the complexity is tied in to Apple's non-optical implementation of Intel's LightPeak interface. It's also a standard, which means anyone should be able to implement it. 

Lightning is also a 'standard', albeit a defacto one, given the sheer number of iOS devices which will shortly be sporting it. It's a standard that belongs to Apple. With this change, they have extended their realm of control beyond the bounds of the device, in a way that the old dock connector never could. Not content with complete control of the operating system and application environment, their control now extends into all the hardware that can connect to it.

 

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