Skip to main content

Why would Apple switch iPhone 8 from Lightning to USB-C?

iPhone 8, or whatever Apple decides to call the "10th Anniversary iPhone", has been rumored to contain all sorts of advanced technology, from distance charging to face and iris scanning. One of the most consistent has been a switch from LCD to OLED display technology. Not so common, a switch from Lightning to USB-C connector.

Takashi Mochizuki, writing for the Wall Street Journal:

People familiar with Apple's plans said the iPhone releases this year would include two models with the traditional LCD and a third one with an OLED screen.

Both Apple Watch and MacBook Pro with Touch Bar use OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) display technology. Like any technology, it's all about finding the right balance, maximizing the advantages, and mitigating the drawbacks as best as you can.

With OLED, advantages include thinness, because it doesn't require a separate backlight layer the way LCD does, and power efficiency, since the whole screen doesn't have to be lit up, only the specific, individual pixels being used. It's also flexible, so it can curve around edges and not just to them.

Meanwhile, some of the drawbacks have been mitigated, including subpixel arrangement at larger sizes, specific subpixel lifespans, color saturation, and burn-in. Yield is still a challenge, especially at the hundreds of millions of units iPhone ships every year.

But, using OLED on a specific, higher-end iPhone would let Apple not only differentiate it, but do so in a way that also lets them meet demand.

They said Apple would introduce other updates including a USB-C port for the power cord and other peripheral devices, instead of the company's original Lightning connector. The models would also do away with a physical home button, they said. Those updates would give the iPhone features already available on other smartphones.

Let's assume that, when feeling around in the dark, the WSJ didn't simply mistake the elephant's trunk for a snake — that Apple is switching the other end of the iPhone charging cable from USB-A to USB-C and keeping Lightning for the on-device port. Let's assume what they heard and vetted is a real plan to switch the actual port on the iPhone from Lightning to USB-C. What does that mean?

Feature sets, not chipsets

Apple was an early adopter of USB-C on the 12-inch MacBook introduced in 2015. They chose not to wait for it on iPhone, though, introducing their own, smaller, Lightning connector on iPhone 5 in 2012. USB-C was nowhere near ready and Apple couldn't have made iPhone 5 the way they wanted to if they'd stuck to then 10-year old 30-pin iPod Dock connector.

iPhone 7

iPhone 7

As I wrote in my Lightning vs. USB-C explainer, though:

The Lightning team at Apple helped build USB-C, which is why there are so many similarities and why Apple has gone all-in on it for the Mac. Whenever, if ever, it makes sense — and is worth the transition cost — for iPhone and/or iPad, we'll see Apple go all-in on it there as well.

Lightning and USB-C are implementation details. The tech community loves to talk about chipsets but Apple focuses on selling feature sets. For example, there's no real NFC on iPhone. There's Apple Pay which just happens to use NFC under the covers.

So, when thinking about Apple transitioning from Lightning to USB-C — which would delight the part of its market that really wants the industry to settle on a single, cross-compatible connector, and infuriate the part of its market that's still angry over losing Dock and in no way wants to buy new cables, dongles, and accessories again — the most important questions is why?

Apple made the switch from Dock to Lightning just five years ago. Apple made the switch from 3.5 mm headphone jack to Lightning just last year. Though historically fearless when it comes to sacrificing the past for the future, what feature set (not chipset) would be compelling enough for Apple to put their customers, partners, and themselves through another transition?

When and if Apple senior vice president of marketing, Phil Schiller, takes to a keynote stage to announce the change, what case for USB-C would he make?

Lightning vs. USB-C: Analyst reactions

To help put some context around the idea of a Lightning to USB-C transition, I asked some industry analysts in the Apple space for their quick, first reactions:

Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research:

I'd say that between wireless for headphones and potential wireless charging, the port will just become a lot less important over the next few years. So, at some point, it doesn't matter all that much what technology that port uses.There would be a certain symmetry, too, in abandoning the Lightning port after five years, just as Apple abandoned the old 30-pin connector after the first five years of the iPhone.Apple clearly isn't wedded to particular ports or technologies for nostalgic or other reasons, and is willing to make changes where the upside outweighs the downside.Some standardization around USB-C would be a good thing over the long term, even if it's painful in the short term.Having said all that, there's no guarantee that this change will be made this fall. Though there's some logic to making a change like this alongside a big change in form factor and the introduction of wireless charging, you could also argue that there are going to be enough changes without adding this too.

Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies:

Expanding to USB-C makes sense if there are things in the roadmap where they need more bandwidth from the port that they can't get with lightening. Something like AR or VR comes to mind where you would need to send large high resolutions files over the port to the headset or glasses.Of course, Lightning to USB-C on the charger end is a simpler explanation.

Carolina Milanesi, also of Creative Strategies:

I think it would make sense considering it's on the Mac and might also be what other devices will use. For example, devices that Apple might not make directly but could fit into the connected home ecosystem or the car.

AR (augmented reality) being a popular theory and something Apple CEO Tim Cook has gone out of his way to mention an interest in several times already, I also asked Mobile Nations' own resident VR/AR expert for his thoughts.

Russell Holly of VRHeads:

USB-C supports the full 10Gbps bandwidth of USB 3.1, which current iPhones and the Lightning cables that power them don't currently offer. If Apple were working on an Augmented Reality peripheral that was feeding real-time data from multiple cameras to the phone, fully utilizing USB 3.1 would be a priority.

iPad Pro 12.9, with the proper adapter, can hit USB 3.0 and 5Gbps, by way of comparison. So, while the world moves wireless for things like charging and audio, video continues to go the other way — not staying the same size so it can beam, but growing with the pipes by adding resolution, color depth, data layers, and dimensionality.

iMore's analyst-in-residence, Michael Gartenberg:

USB-C allows Apple to unify their products into one cohesive set of connectors. Apple has been working towards going with standards, not proprietary connectors.I think we'll only see that transition on one high-end model, though, before the full switchover will happen.

But, but, licensing fees!

One of the knocks on a switch from Lightning to USB-C is that Apple would never willingly give up Made For iPhone (MFi) licensing fees. For anyone wondering about that, please allow me to introduce you to iPhone profits.

Chargers

Chargers (Image credit: iMore)

While MFi no doubt appears on a spreadsheet buried somewhere in "Other", it's blotted out like a Kyrptonian eclipse by iPhone, and Apple's interest in it by their interest in introducing new features to sell even more iPhones. In other words, its job security is only slightly better than MagSafe's was on the Mac.

Lightning and licensing were always more about control of their own destiny anyway. Apple could do what they wanted with it, when they wanted, without waiting for any external standards body to agree or to ship, and they could hold partner companies to quality control and compatibility levels Apple found acceptable.

Whether or not those dynamics and Apple's priorities around them have changed, we'll have to wait and see. And to find out what would happen with new iPads and with Lightning headphones, and all the other questions that would come along with it.

Until then, like anything, Apple will stick with Lightning precisely until they don't.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

21 Comments
  • USB-C way better than lightning
  • No it isn't. If you had credibility you would have backed up your comment. That being said I own a sum total of 8 lighting cables. Making the transition to USB-C would be a piece of cake and i'm looking forward to wireless charging becoming the standard. The need for Lightning just isn't there anymore. I think this rumor will happen and there won't be much of an outcry.
  • I am a fan of keeping lightning, it keeps a nice standard for the apple eco system. While USB C fills the hole for everyone, I look at my desk and have just one lightning cable, it charges my AirPods, connects to my phone, and can charge up the my apple wireless trackpad. That is nice. What I think the article meant was a USB C to lightning cable is included and that the chargers are going the way of USB C.
    As for USB - C, still not prepared for it yet. I bought a Razer blade stealth and have been trying to find a 3rd party charger, and am really skeptical of using any USB C cable or charger that could fry the laptop.
  • So the deal here is technically they could keep lightning, and just upgrade it to USB 3.1 standards. USB Type C just means a reversible connector. The real part the matters with USB is what standard is it adhering to. So upgrading lightning to USB 3.1 would be a huge leap and still be the same as USB C. Apple now doesn't have to worry about the "transition". Though then again Apple will want to make a killing off the USB C to Lightning adapters. Link with info for those who want more info on USB. http://www.velocitymicro.com/blog/usb-3-1-vs-usb-type-c-vs-usb-3-0-whats... Sent from the iMore App
  • USB C is much more than a "reversible connector". Otherwise, dirt cheap USB C cables would not have any issues. Switching to USB C means almost all new mid to high end devices will use USB C as the standard port, from desktops to laptops to tablets to phones, onto wearables and IOT devices. We can finally enter the dongle free era.
  • If the do release the iPhone 8 with a USB C connector, then the decision to drop the 3.5mm from the iPhone 7 was rather egregious, especially as quite a few folks by now have forked out for extra dongles or Beats headphones with Lightning connector.
  • The decision to drop the 3.5mm was a good idea but should've been done in line with changing the iPhone to USB-C. The problem would only get worse if they didn't switch to USB-C on the next iPhone, though
  • If people buy lightning headphones they can't even use them on their Macs which are supposed to be tied to and integrate perfectly with IPhones, If apple did change to USB-C it would hurt for some people but in the long run having two standards, one for mac and one for IPhone doesn't make much sense and would possibly hurt more people, now I'm not saying Apple is going to release USB-C this year because they aren't known for doing what's best for the consumer and more for their bottom line. Not saying its bad, its what all companies do, but don't pretend its for any other reason than profit.
  • As Rene said, Apple will do what Apple will do when Apple wants to do it. Personally, I would think Apple would just stick with Lightning until a fully wireless device (no physical headphone port, no physical port for charging/data - Wireless charging, wireless data transfer, wireless audio).
    Unless that totally wireless device is farther down the line than they anticipated (with wireless charging not being fast enough), it couldn't be more than a year or two away - why switch standards for a port you're going to eliminate anyway?
  • Standards are good. The industry is going USB C.
  • Yep, time to level the playing fields and have everything with the same connector! Oh wait, this is Apple! Mechanically, the lightning connector seems more durable. However with everything going type C it would be demonstrably superior (for consumers - convenience) to have it work. Imagine a speaker with a docking connector that could work with Android AND Apple devices! Some devices may need an insert to stand. It may not come this year but eventually it will come.
  • All I can say is --- They better not change it for the next iPhone release! I'm already heavily invested in the lightening port. (Please note, I'm not yelling) Of course, that's just my opinion from a purely non-technical perspective. I'm particularly fond of the lightening port.
  • They need to change it as soon as, really. With removing the headphone jack, the alternative should've been a standard, so they need to move to USB-C with the next iPhone so that the headphone jack removal makes sense and so that not too many people invest into Lightning headphones.
  • Don't worry, they will surely introduce a lightning to USB-C adapter.
  • If the OLED iPhone 8 is their AR play, then the USB-C switch would make sense. If not, then I agree with Richard Ludwig, why not just play out the Lightening standard until they can go totally wireless for data and charging - the ultimate sealed device.
  • Personally, I'm skeptical that this year is "too soon" for a transition, but most people also thought 2016 was "too soon" to ditch the headphone jack, so I'm not holding much to that one. If Apple goes USB-C in 2017, they're going to end up with a very awkward transition period with headphones and headphone adapters. I will say, though, I know plenty of folks both technical and non-technical who think the 30-pin to lightning transition was a money grab. Even though USB-C is an open standard, I don't think people will care. Those who buy their accessories from Apple will still pay Apple prices, and those who want to elsewhere will still go elsewhere. It didn't take long for there to be 3rd party lightning cables. Within a couple years people are buying yet another set of adapters. I don't think it matters whether they're giving Apple the money or someone else...Consumers (understandably) don't like paying more for dongles. Even professionals who have pretty much always carried a bunch of dongles of some sort, were not very enthused with the MacBook Pro situation.
    To be clear, I don't think any one of these consumer annoyances is enough to hurt Apple significantly, but it starts to become 'death by a thousand paper cuts' at some point if you aren't careful. On the subject of MFi. I still expect Apple to do an MFi program even for a standard accessory. Not all USB-C cables are the same, and there's been many reports about dangerously built ones. If Apple were to enable 3rd parties to make USB-C to USB, or VGA, HDMI, etc adapters or docks or whatnots, I could totally see those being certified in some manner. Though, I think this is more of a consumer confidence aspect than a money one. However, I have some serious doubts about USB-C, that I haven't seen address:
    * USB-C is a bit thicker than lightning. Could Apple still make the iPods it does with USB-C? So far, the connector hasn't been the limiting factor in width for an iPhone, but Apple doesn't seem like the company that likes to add limitations to their work. (Maybe this one is minor). I haven't able to find detailed specs about the sizes. It also seems like it would be possible for Apple to introduce Lightning2 at some point with a smaller connecter if they wanted...
    * One Cable: What's the deal with this - right now we have TB3 cables that are USB-C cables, and USB-C cables that only transfer at USB2 speeds, and some that do power only and some that do data only. Despite the fact that it's the same connector, this all seems like a mess. Would you really be able to use the same power brick and cable to charge your phone and laptop? How many people would also travel with that many less things? I make sure I have 1 USB outlet per device when I travel, otherwise things won't get charged at night, though simplicity in what goes in to what would be nice if it were achievable. All that said, I think it's probably a net-positive in the long run to go to USB-C. I wonder if Apple might test the waters by doing an iPad (Pro ?) device first, where there's a more clear use for the advanced power (a la the current 12.9" iPad Pro) and optionally some more 'traditional' computing accessories, like video adapters and audio interfaces.
  • My experience with my late-80's parents and connectors is this: micro-USB is a pain and they have damaged many devices just inserting it, even correctly and not upside down. Mostly they damage the device because of the wafer-thin part on the device. Contrast that with the lightning which has not had any problems with the connector on both sides. I've also worked on tablets being tested by the military which are Android devices. The weakest link (amongst all the other problems with them) is the power connector which typically lasts about two weeks before needing repair on the device.
  • Definitely for USB-C, it is definitely a huge convenience as a consumer as time goes and upgrade my devices accordingly, it means I will truly need only one cable for everything. As of right I need to bring 3 cables for the following: Nintendo Switch (USB-C), iPhone/iPad (Lighting), and Bluetooth headphones (MicroUSB), having to only need 1 cable to charge all those 3 at some point in the future would be perfect.
  • What if Apple introduced lightning 2.0? Lightning on one side and usb 3.1 on the other. That way you kinda get the best of both worlds. Increased power delivery and bandwidth without sacrificing the MFI licensing fees.
    While technically you would still need to carry 2 cables, it would allow you to take a single power brick for both Mac and iPhone while still being backwards compatible with older iOS devices. With the rumors of the much needed quick charging finally coming to the iPhone, I think this is going to be the most realistic option.
  • USB-C please! ....and Qi wireless charging. :)
  • All of Apple's device-end connection ports are Lightning: keyboard, trackpad, mouse, phone, pad, AirPod case. Ports are legacy. Apple will remove the Lightning port one day, but they will replace it with wireless, not USB-C. The WSJ article almost certainly was a poorly worded/vetted description of changing the charger from USB-A to USB-C, a change which would hardly surprise any of us I think.