Lightning aside, that 30-pin dock connector ain't going nowhere

Even with rumors of Apple fast-tracking the 30-pin dock connector's demise, millions of legacy devices aren't going to disappear over night

When Apple introduced the iPhone 5, fourth-generation iPad and iPad mini, they also introduced the Lightning connector, a new interface to replace the 30-pin dock connector that had been standard equipment on all iOS devices up to then. While the Lightning connector is the heir ascendant, is it time to say goodbye to the old 30-pin Dock Connector?

While the iPod debuted in 2001, it was a Mac-only peripheral that used FireWire to charge and to sync with its host computer. There was no built-in Wi-Fi, no wireless sync, and at that point, old, slow USB 1.1 was standard equipment on the Mac. Recognizing a great market opportunity, Apple brought the iPod to Windows users in 2002.

FireWire worked quite well as both a speedy sync interface and as a charging interface, but it also inhibited the iPod's adoption among Windows PC users, who (still) greatly outnumber Mac users. Although FireWire wasn't completely unknown among Windows users - Sony PCs came equipped with FireWire ports labeled "i.Link" - it certainly wasn't as ubiquitous as USB.

In 2003 Apple threw off the shackles of FireWire and mated the iPod to a 30-pin dock connector.

Finally, in 2003, with the introduction of Apple's third-generation iPod, Apple threw off the shackles of FireWire and mated the device to a 30-pin dock connector instead. While Mac users could still use FireWire, PC users got a USB cable that summer, and iPod adoption rates went off the charts.

From then on, the Dock Connector was the standard interface for the iPod. And for its successors, the iPod mini and the iPod nano (the iPod shuffle started out as a USB memory stick and later went to its current clip-on button form factor).

Once Apple introduced the Dock Connector, they started to license third parties to make products designed to support it. Pretty soon the iPod ecosystem was rife with companies that produced docking stations, speakers, clock radios and other devices that supported the Dock Connector.

And so it remained until 2012, when Apple introduced the Lightning connector.

Greased lightning

Apple wanted to continue to evolve the shape and dimensions of iOS devices, but they were faced with a problem that wasn't an issue when the Dock Connector debuted in 2003. Chip miniaturization and improved manufacturing processes made it possible to shrink iOS devices to almost unbelievable thicknesses. There also came a need to do more inside. None of this was possible with the relatively large 30-pin Dock Connector in the way. It was no secret that Apple was working on a new connector to replace the 30-pin Dock Connector.

Apple debuted the Lightning Connector with the iPhone 5 in 2012

Apple debuted the Lightning Connector with the iPhone 5 in September, 2012. Apple called Lightning "smaller, smarter and more durable than the previous connector," noting that it has a reversible interface that's adaptive - it only uses the circuitry that each device connected to it requires.

The new interface carried over the newest iPod touch and iPod nano, which were introduced at the same time as the iPhone 5. And when Apple introduced the iPad mini a month later, it also had a Lightning connector, as did the fourth-generation full-sized iPad, which was introduced at the same time as the iPad mini.

I have no doubt that when we see refreshed iOS devices announced next month, they will have Lightning connectors. Lightning is the way new iOS devices will connect to computers and other devices from here on out. Already Apple's shipped millions of Lightning-equipped devices, and third parties with MFI (Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod touch) certifications wasted no time getting Lightning-based products ready for distribution.

But that doesn't mean the 30-pin Dock Connector is going away any time soon.

Here for a while

Predictably, Apple's created a bit of a quagmire with the Lightning transition. Many consumers who have purchased iOS devices in the past already have accessories that use 30-pin dock connectors - everything from clock radios to car stereos - and they're not anxious to scrap those and start over again. So Apple has a Lightning to 30-Pin Dock Connector converter that helps bridge the gap. And more companies are producing Lightning-equipped devices every day.

But that doesn't change the state of the Apple union. Tim Cook noted in January during a conference call with financial analysts that Apple had shipped 500 million iOS devices in total.

At that point, the company had barely shipped three months' worth of Lightning-equipped iOS devices. The vast majority of the devices it had shipped were equipped with 30-pin Dock Connectors.

What's more, you can walk into a store today and buy current Apple hardware with 30-pin Dock Connectors - the iPod classic retains the 30-pin Dock Connector, for example, and the iPhone 4 and 4S are still available from Apple and other retailers. Not to mention the iPad 2.

But the fact remains that hundreds of millions of iOS devices remain in circulation today that still use the Dock Connector.

That may change soon: September and October are historically big months for Apple to make iOS product announcements, and we already know that Apple has something up its sleeve for September 10th.

But the fact remains that hundreds of millions of iOS devices remain in circulation today that still use the Dock Connector. So if you're worried about products that use it disappearing tomorrow, don't be. It'll be here for a while longer.

Peter Cohen
  • I really don't see the point of this article. Just like the old dock connector the majority of devices still use USB 2.0, the majority of PC's/laptops use DVD drives, etc. This is just stating the obvious...
  • you are an arsehole troll. This is just stating the obvious...
  • Are you kidding me? Who's the troll here? I'm just stating my opinion on this piece which I believe is 100% valid since it is truly stating the very obvious. I don't think anyone needs an article to know that one generation of iDevices isn't going to replace ALL connectors from so many years, I mean seriously. So mind your language, stop being so ignorant and do everyone a favor and refrain from replying unless you have anything of value to tell me.
  • Agreed. Unnecessary insult. As far as the article, I stopped reading around the 2nd or 3rd paragraph. ThomasJL seems to have it right. Filler.
  • I agree, pointless article. Filler for a slow news day.
  • Guys, the last iMore podcast the guys spoke of how Apple is hoping to use the two new iPhones to push forward the lightning connector. Perhaps in the post show, they decided to have this article to admit that, ok Apple wants to push forward, but also realizes that because of the millions of devices sold that they won't just stop supporting the 30 pin connector. Yes maybe it's obvious, but it seems to be a follow up from the podcast. So yeah, obvious article, but it finishes up the discussion that they had on the podcast where Peter lost connection. Maybe he just wanted to finish his thought. Either way, I look forward to my first lightning connector device.
  • Thus the iPhone 5c. They can drop all non lightning connected phones. And still have 2 models to sell.
  • The bigger problem is that even compatible accessories (think video output, or car kits) do less with the lightning connectors than they do with the 30-pin dock. Yeah, yeah, bring up the theoretical flexibility of having a dynamically configurable cable - it's an empty an argument as Android folks touting specs. What it can do for the user is what is important, and, right now, almost a year later, it simply does less than its predecessor.
  • That's the only reason I still have my old iPhone 4 connected to the Car Sound System. Even if I use a 30 pin to Lightning adapter I lose the ability to charge the phone at the same time and I don't want to reduce functionality by messing around with running a line from the headphone jack and then connect the phone to the charger. Personally I think that if Apple was going to make a change in the way it connects to devices they should have focused on micro-USB and simplified things all round. It's not like there is an advantage in having a proprietary connector. It is only as fast as the USB connection it attaches.
  • MicroUSB ports on devices are a significant point of failure through even normal, everyday use.
  • While I understand that Apple may have technical needs to create a more compact interface, I don't remember seeing any user posting requests to that effect.
    As always, vote with your wallet. Then Apple will listen.
  • The one thing I'll say about the lightning connector that I really like is how easily it inserts compared to the previous dock connector. Also after one weekend with a Morphie Juicepack I am frustrated with the MicroUSB connector, it is such a pain to insert while fumbling in a dimly lit area or while not looking directly at it. The lightning connector goes in smoothly and easily.