Recently, several Apple news stories have all subtly lent themselves to the idea that Apple's iPhone might one day not have any ports at all. Apple has a complicated relationship with ports on its iPhone, a factor onlookers and haters are often quick to remind it of. Famously, Apple chose to ditch the 30-pin connector of the iPhone in favor of its smaller Lightning Dock. Not only did eschewing the 30-pin dock save a heap of space at the base of the iPhone, but it also paved the way for Apple's second, and arguably more controversial design change, getting rid of the headphone jack.
At the time both decisions were met with a lot of pushback and outcry. Apple did not help its case by charging people $25 dollars for an adaptor so they could keep using their old 30-pin accessories. Thankfully, Apple learned from its mistake with the headphone jack, choosing to include the adapter with new iPhones.
But what about no ports? Could it happen? Well, several recent news stories have suggested that it might not be the worst idea in the world... None of what I'm about to lay out proves the concept or is confirmation that Apple will ever do this, but the idea is not as far-fetched as you would think.
The EU and standardized charging
At the end of January, the European Union voted overwhelmingly in favor of a common charging standard. It's a move designed to reduce wastage and stop people from buying new chargers with each device. It could also mean that people would not need to maintain an arsenal of several different chargers for multiple devices. The EU had previously pushed a voluntary agreement with the industry, which had reduced the variety of chargers, but had not created uniformity.
But what better standard of charging could you ask for than wireless charging? If the EU wants to standardize charging, why don't we just scrap plugs and cables altogether, and instead let everyone use wireless charging mats that can charge a number of devices such as phones, headphones, and smartwatches? Apple of course already lets users charge the iPhone wirelessly, and it's also a feature available with newer AirPods. If it's wastage and recycling you're worried about, charging without wires would certainly help. Wireless charging obviously still requires a cable and plug socket, however, the mat is usually stationary, not subject to the same wear and tear that Lightning cables are, so they last much longer. Apple could also stop shipping plugs and charge cables with its products. Just imagine how small an iPhone box could be if it didn't include a wall adapter...
By ditching wired charging in the iPhone, Apple could significantly reduce shipping costs, the size of the iPhone's box, and the number of Lightning cables and adapters being bought, broken and replaced by customers. Win win-win! (We'll get to audio soon, don't worry)
Over the air recovery
Just a couple of days ago, evidence was discovered in the iOS 13.4 beta which suggests that Apple might be working on an over the air recovery solution for iPhone. OS recovery would allow users to restore iOS devices without the need to physically plug them into a computer. It's a feature long-established in Apple's Mac computers, where you can restore a device by redownloading macOS and restoring your data from an iCloud/Time Machine backup, without the need for another device.
This is important too because currently, the iPhone needs a connector so that the phone can be restored by connecting it to a Mac, an over the air solution built into iOS would solve that problem. One less reason the iPhone needs a port.
Apple's recent (and longrunning) struggles with the FBI are well documented. The FBI would like a backdoor to iOS devices, Apple would not. Stuck in the middle of the two, is a grey area of third party exploitation, Bootrom jailbreak hacks and companies like Cellebrite who claim to be able to bypass iOS security. Indeed, many arguments against the FBI's call for a backdoor, state that the FBI doesn't need one because it can get third parties to do the job for them. Cellebrite, Checkm8 and Grayshift's GrayKey are but three examples. But all of these solutions need a physical port to connect to your iPhone. What better way to stop anyone (including the FBI) from trying to back door your iOS security, than by taking away the one thing they need to connect to your iPhone?
Personally, I think that this is one of the most interesting and compelling reasons Apple has to think about ditching ports in its iPhone.
Yes, I know, the Lightning connector is also an audio connector, and we need it for headphones. Except that one of Apple's most popular products ever is its wireless AirPods. The shift to wireless audio in recent years has been phenomenal, and the momentum shows no sign of slowing down. The future of audio, and indeed the future of probably all tech everywhere is wireless, and let's face it, Apple has never been shy of jumping ahead of the curve when it comes to this sort of thing. Even though wireless audio is not as affordable for many, you can be sure that Apple is a prime candidate for ditching wired audio altogether.
When Apple got rid of the headphone jack, its motives were clear. It could no longer justify a singular-use port that took up so much space in the iPhone yet served only one purpose. The Lightning connector sure takes up less space than the 30-pin connector, but more space than it would if it didn't exist. Removing the Lightning connector could, from a design standpoint, pave the way for a larger battery, an improved speaker system or better waterproofing.
There are, however, a few things to take into consideration for Apple. As mentioned, taking away wired audio capability from an iPhone would be a really big deal, and would upset a lot of people. Apple would need to be sure that enough people had enough access to affordable, good quality wireless audio solutions before taking the plunge.
There are also security and maintenance quirks. For example, whilst taking away the Lightning dock could reduce the risk of security breaches from nefarious third parties, it would also reduce Apple's own capabilities when it comes to running diagnostic tests and recovering your iPhone's data. Whenever you make something harder to access, you also increase the risk it could be lost forever. By way of example, one reason Apple chose not to encrypt iCloud backups is not because of FBI pressure, but rather because encryption was causing people to permanently lose their iCloud data. As our own Rene Ritchie reported:
So, Apple implemented two-step authentication. And the way they implemented it meant anyone using it had to write down or print out a long pseudo-random recovery key and keep it safe in case they ever forgot their iCloud passwords or couldn't supply the second step for authentication. Otherwise, they'd get locked out of their own accounts.
And, of course… people being people… they promptly turned on 2SA, lost their recovery key, and got locked out of their own iCloud accounts. Including and especially the irreplaceable data stored in those accounts like baby and wedding pictures.
Apple was flooded with requests to help people get back into their accounts, but without the recovery key there was nothing Apple could do. The data was lost. For all intents and purposes, destroyed.
If an iPhone of the future was to adopt solely wireless, as opposed to wired charging, it could also potentially ramp up maintenance and repair times and cost. If your phone wasn't charging for some reason, Apple would have to look inside your phone, right now, the Lightning dock is usually the first port of call. (Pardon the pun)
A portless iPhone is a long way off, perhaps not even a prospect, and not without its challenges. But perhaps we need a company like Apple to take the plunge, firmly pushing us all towards a future free of Lightning cables, charger wastage, and third party security hacks.