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Apple's 30-Pin Tempest In A Teacup

Apple's next phone is said to shed the old 30-pin iPod connector in favor of a newer, smaller port. The Apple-obsessed Internet is officially scandalized by the not-yet-official decision. Here's what that tells us about Apple.


It's still a rumor, but from the gathering number of independent leaks—including what may be an officially sanctioned leak to the Wall Street Journal—Apple's next iPhone will feature a redesigned case that has the headphone port on the bottom alongside a new type of smaller connector port for data and charging.

A new connector! The audacity! Some parts of the (Internet) population would have you believe it's yet another money-grabbing push by a company that already "overcharges" for its products. This suggests a few things about the public: They expect extraordinary things from Apple; they're quick to ignore the stats; and some are keen to find any way to knock a hugely successful firm (one that Samsung, at least in terms of the dock cable, really did copy).

It also tells us a couple of things about Apple. First the company was amazingly clever to choose the 30-pin connector in the first place and to stick with it for so long. Second it shows the company is willing to learn from its own past, and also to side-step meaningless criticism so it can push its own products on innovatively (with the innovation being that, possibly, the new connector may include MagSafe tricks so its even easier to hook up to charger cables and accessories).

To understand all of this, think way back to April 28, 2003, when Apple introduced the third version of the iPod. It had a then-huge storage capacity of 40GB, an all-touch interface and a slimmer case. It also had a new dock connector that, for the first time, allowed the iPod to sync over USB as well as the FireWire system Apple had been exclusively using before. The 30-pin connector was small, easy to hook up and had plenty of room for future expansion of iPod capabilities because, after all, the data and power concerns of FireWire and USB only took up about a third of the 30-pin total. 

It appeased users who preferred to stick with FireWire, pleased users who wanted USB, enabled Apple to sell the iPod to Windows PC users who more typically had USB ports than FireWire ones, and it led to a smaller number of components on the motherboard and sockets on the iPod's side than would've been needed if it had both a large FireWire socket and a USB one. That means the designers could maximize space inside the iPod's newly slimmer body for more important stuff like a battery and storage.

Apple made great use of the rest of those 30 pins over the next 9 years, and added different capabilities to the iPods, then iPhones and iPads. Using exactly the same physical connector, via an adaptor, you can now hook your iPhone to your HDTV—a concept that would've seemed like sci-fi in 2003.

In total well over half a billion devices have been sold that have the iPod dock connector. That's over 300 million iPods (not all of which have the connector port, including some Shuffles and early iPods), around 200 million iPhones and closing on 100 million iPads.

Apart from the headphone socket and micro- or mini-USB (which simply isn't as capable as the 30-pin) it's even arguable that no modern portable digital connector has been used on so many devices for so long a time. It's this huge number of devices, the longevity of the design, and the cross-compatibility between devices—so a music dock for an iPad can also hook up to an iPhone—that's enabled a billion dollar accessory industry to grow up around the iDevices. There's simply not the same hardware ecosystem available for Apple's peers because of the plethora of proprietary connectors, and nowadays reliance on microUSB. 

And now it's time to move on.

FireWire, for example, is gone ... and two of the 30 pins in the iPod dock alone are reserved for FireWire's beefy +12V power needs. The 30-pin port is now huge compared to the size of Apple's portable devices, it takes up a disproportionate amount of space inside its devices, and space inside the case of a device like the iPhone, where even a saving of a fraction of a millimeter in the thickness of the screen can make it lighter and save space for a bigger battery, is at a premium. It's also a huge dust and moisture entry-point for your precious multi-hundred-dollar iPhone or iPad.

So Apple is rumored to be going for a smaller 19-pin connector that still allows clever accessory interactivity and yet improves the phone structurally. It shows that Apple's not content to settle on design, to sit back and become complacent. That would be easy, and it would be the end. Instead Apple's keen to edge ahead, disregard the norm, stay hungry, stay foolish, and pursue neat design solutions. It's classic Apple.

That's great news for the company itself, investors, and consumers and, yes, accessory makers who can now sell even cleverer accessories.

And also: This is just a connector port, people! It's not the end of the world, and it's an as-yet-rumor-only minor design point in a phone that will have many other innovations.

[Image: Kit Eaton]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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  • MikeC

    I think it is a terrible idea.  Just when the ipod connector has reached the mainstream (docking alarm clocks in hotel rooms, connectors as options in new vehicles), they're going to change it.

    Sometimes, you don't have to change to win.

  • Kit Eaton

    Hey Mikec. Agreed--sometimes resisting change is a good thing. But the iPod connector's been out for 9 years now, and only *now* other folks are catching no one else has even come close to producing so ubiquitous and successful a standard for all their mobile devices. 

    If no one ever changed protocols like this, then you'd not be able to hook your TV up to your PS3 or whatever over HDMI. Instead you'd have to rely on huge SCART sockets or low-quality analog video ports. 

  • Jyri Jokinen

    Key word in your sentence "no one has come close to producing a standard for _their_ mobile devices". It's only Apple devices. Other manufacturers would probably not be allowed to use that same "standard". I'd rather have a standard that is available for everybody. If Apple had their way, there would be no HDMI, it would more likely be HD Apple Interface.


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  • Aristeia

    I can't help but wonder about the comment that Micro or Mini USB cables aren't "as capable as the 30-pin."  This particular comment surprised me, because I hadn't heard that before.  Perhaps my google-fu is rusty, but I wasn't able to find any information backing that statement.

    Could you link the source for that fact, or am I missing something?

    Bear in mind that I've owned iPhones and Android phones over the years, and still have an iPad - not really rooting for either horse here.

  • Jyri Jokinen

    This is something I wonder as well. I understand that if all the mobile devices one has ever used were Apple, there's a nice bit of interoperability between accessories. But rest of the world is moving to micro USB, and I - for one - am frustrated every time a new power/data connector is introduced. Most recently Playstation Vita and Samsung Galaxy Tabs.

    Why can't everything be microUSB? This is just data, people!

  • Kit Eaton

    Hey James. It's really all expressed by the question: Why 30 connection points? Check out this list of what each "pin" means: The iPod connector has space for several types of power to suit USB, FireWire, video systems and to power accessories. There's line-out audio in stereo, composite video output, s-video out, a clever line to handshake with accessories to see what they are, USB data, FireWire data, common lines and a "backup" data/power line that could be used in different ways. 

    A simple USB micro or mini port on a different phone (it doesn't matter which, just a question of size) has just four "pins." It simply enables transfer of power and typical digital USB data. If you were sneaky, you could repurpose the port on your phone the fly and say "for now, use the USB data line as a plain line-out audio" but that would be awkward, would likely break accepted USB protocols and you can tell it would mess up some accessories. 

    Apple's solution allows for the phone to be sucking on power from some lines, while simultaneously sending digital data down other lines alongside analog audio signals or even analog video out. In a different way it also allows for power to be sent from the phone to power accessories, alongside data chatter, which really expands the potency and the kind of accessory that you can plug in. 

    Hence Apple's (probably) rationalized the design a bit, ditched some legacy requirements, added in a few future-facing pins that will enable "X" clever tech to work in five year's time, and that comes to 19 pins in the new design. Much more flexible than USB. Yup?