Is it Time for Apple to Switch From Dock Connector to USB?

The iPhone, like the iPod before it (well, at least since the 3rd-gen iPod, when Apple switched from FireWire), uses a proprietary connector called the dock for charging, syncing, video and audio-out, and multiple other functions. A broad port with 30 pins for many purposes, having a proprietary connector gives Apple a lot of flexibility, but also -- through their licensing program -- a lot of control over who can make peripherals and what can be done with them.

During our last edition of the iPhone Live! podcast, Dieter flat-out stated that Apple needed to dump the dock. He pointed out that countries like China and regions like the EU are, or may be, making universal connectors like USB a legal requirement. One charger, one port, to rule them all. (HTC is already replacing the 3.5mm headphone jack, folding it into the mini-USB-like ExtUSB on devices like the Android G1).

The dock connector originally allowed Apple to keep FireWire compatibility and add USB when it entered the PC market. Over time, Apple has moved over to USB, and now with the iPhone 3G and later iPod's, FireWire is gone completely and charging can only occur via USB. Since USB already provides power, provides data exchange, and technology like DisplayLink (which connects external displays via USB) show that an increasingly large range of connection types are becoming possible.

So, as technology marches on, as backwards compatibility is shed, and as standards like USB 2.0 (and in the future, USB 3.0) grow faster and more capable, is it time for Apple to dump the dock and go with the same port most everyone else is using (including Apple with the Mac)?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Is it Time for Apple to Switch From Dock Connector to USB?


I think this is a very difficult item for Apple to introduce, since the dock connector is already very popular (just take a look at how many products from third companies are iPod compatible), even cars are made with it.
I guess one thing that will make this very unlikely to happen is the analog line-out option. If you restrict it to USB, you just have digital data going there, so many companies would have to implement a decoder.
Apple likes to control things, the AppStore is a strong example of that, so I guess the answer is never... hehe

Apple has a massive advantage with the dock. Most accessories are only iPod compatible, which sways people towards the iPod. They'll never switch to a common connection unless forced. And mini-USB instead of 3.5mm stereo plug!!!! NO

As good of an idea it seems to be, it just doesn't sit right with me for some reason. Maybe I'm just drunk on the PR Kool-Aid, but for some reason I like the proprietary dock better.
And I usually HATE proprietary formats.
... damn reality distortion field.

Had you asked me 6 months ago I would have spent pages giving you reasons why Apple should ditch the dock connector. But owning an iPhone 3G for a few months has made me change my mind.
Instead of going to the inferior USB contact, Apple should publish the interface of the dock connector and make it a public interface rather than proprietary. They could still run a certification program for companies that want their products "Certified for Apple iPhone/iPod etc", but it should be possible for anyone to create a device that connects using the dock connector without having to pay huge license fees to Apple.

The iPhone and iPod Touch dock connector is not only a source of revenue for Apple, but it also allows they to exert a certain amount of quality control over devices that interface with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

I am not a fan of the usb charging. I had a blackberry for about 2 years and I went threw a few warranty exchanges cause the usb connector on the phone would become lose and then it wouldn't charge the phone. I like the dock connector it fits in there nice and tight and it isn't lose. I hope the stay with the dock connector.

My wife and I each have iPod connectors built into our cars. We also have three different iPod speaker systems. Switching to USB right now would be a disaster for us. I suppose if there were a transition period where iPods for, say, the next five years had both sorts of connections, it could work. But that would probably require iPods weighing 75 lbs or something.

Analog A/V out is still needed by anything you want to play the DRM protected audio files and any video files. I work for a consumer electronics company focused on in-vehicle applications, and this is a must for us.

HTC doesn't use generic USB, they use a connector called ExtUSB. This variant can be identified by the slightly different connector it entails, basically a MiniUSB with the lower right corner not indented, just a simple right angle.
Furthermore while many companies have moved to MiniUSB (Motorola, BlackBerry, etc.) they're pretty much all now moving on to MicroUSB. This thinner, somewhat sturdier version has been agreed as upon as 'a standard' for phone devices by a consortium of companies.
However while the connector may be the same the charging requirements aren't always. While pretty much everything can trickle charge off of standard USB supply nearly every manufacturer has a preferred voltage and amperage that is higher, and many devices wont charge properly, or at all, with an incorrect electrical supply.
Take two popular devices, the BlackBerry Curve & the Motorola Razr. Both use MiniUSB connectors, However the Razr won't charge at all off the BlackBerry's supplied power MiniUSB power adapter. The Curve will try to off of the Razr's minuUSB charger, but while it will show a full charge it'll be dead halfway through the day.
Upshot - the great thing about standards is there are so many of them.
Downside - this was a really poorly researched (as in apparently-not-at-all) article. There a good reasons for Apple to go USB, and some solid ones not to (the Made-for-iPod/iPhone licensing is HUGE). But this article was just, typically, flat out ignorant of the non-iPhone world.

I like standardization and USB has a nice future ahead with charging and fast data rates. But I don't like friction. And I don't like having to look at something closely as you do when you try to insert the 30-pin connector into your iPod touch.
I LOVE the MagSafe connector concept. I'd love to just magnetically 'snap' a connector into place without even looking at it.
Friction wears connectors out. Especially the 3.5mm headphone jack. Those are always the first to go as the sound cuts in and out or they stop working altogether.
Inelegant and ugly and bulky. I like the small mini-USB stuff but it should all be like the MagSafe. Snap in and enjoy.
Any inventors out there?

Taking away the mini headphone jack and replacing it with USB would be a huge mistake and a disaster. Many musicians use the iphone for all kinds of things. There are already sequencers, synths, multi-track recording applications and a variety of apps that use the iphone as a controller for a wide variety of musical hardware and software devices.
The mini-jack allows the iphone to export sound into the mac (or other devices) using a a male to male mini cable. Also the iphone can use this type of cable or similar (mini-jack to RCA, mini-jack to 1/4", etc) for all kinds of connectivity scenarios (say connecting it to speakers or amps for example.)
This provides iphone musicians and multimedia enthusiasts a huge amount of flexibility. Think of that jack as a sort of universal connector to a audio hardware.
Changing that to a usb cable would end all of that interoperability in one fell swoop.
Bad, BAD idea.

The previous poster who suggested Apple make the Dock non-proprietary is right on. USB's a great standard but the plug design is really unsuitable for a mobile device because of how often it's used. The dock connector is extremely durable and low-friction when you pull it in and out and it just makes more sense for this kind of device. The Micro-USB standard that you see on some mobiles e.g. Motorola is also pretty durable but not as good as the dock. And with what else besides a frictionless dock plug can you suitably set a mobile device in something like a stereo system?

There are a lot more ports than just power in the Dock Connector - line out, component video out, Line in (in the case of the classic iPod), radio remote, etc. Moving to the lowest common denominator of a 4 line USB connector would be a disservice to the added functionality the Dock Connector offers. With cables to be found for as little as $5, and any and all USB charger working just fine, I cannot see any reasonable reason to dump it in favor of a dumb USB port.
I DO agree however Apple should drop the price of their additional cords to $10 instead of $20

Sadly, the dock connector needs to stay. As many have said above, there are more accessories that make use of the doc connector than there are mini usb (have you ever seen a mini usb speaker doc? Changing to be compatible with USB would only result in making the iPod/iPhone have as few accessories as everybody else. It wouldn't help their customers.
Plus, there is a lot to be said for the fact that the current dock connector has dedicated a/v output pins. That means that the iPhone can connect directly to a TV without needing a displaylink chipset and converter. Can you imagine how expensive that cable would be coming from apple or anybody else? I'll stick with my third party $35 dock connector component cables.

Apple has already screwed us on the connector. the old devices (including my iPod connector in my Honda) does not charge the iPhone. So while, yes, I can use my iPhone in the car or in my clock radio, I cannot charge it. So with the power issues with the iPhone, this makes most old devices un-usable (if u don't want a dead iPhone).
So, since Apple has been known to forget backward compatibility, we might as well "bite the bullet" and go to standard MiniUSB port.
Wesley Says:
February 16th, 2009 at 12:16 am
I think this is a very difficult item for Apple to introduce, since the dock connector is already very popular (just take a look at how many products from third companies are iPod compatible), even cars are made with it.
I guess one thing that will make this very unlikely to happen is the analog line-out option. If you restrict it to USB, you just have digital data going there, so many companies would have to implement a decoder.
Apple likes to control things, the AppStore is a strong example of that, so I guess the answer is never… hehe

i only ask if Apple make the Dock non-proprietary would they keep using it?...would others adopt it? it really a useful invention? it really novel?...does it have intrinsic value? it environmentally responsible? 'proprietary' socially responsible?...does any of this matter?
other people could have done it but didnt bother because there were existing standards (good, bad or otherwise)... i guess it comes down to costs and who is prepared to pay and play.
at this time Apple products are starting to look like something a snake would offer you... sounds good...but is it really good for you?...we have to live it for sometime now
PS: sorry no answers on this one