What's really wrong with Apple's Lightning cable?

iPhone 5 and Lighting
iPhone 5 and Lighting (Image credit: Leanna Lofte / iMore)

I've been meaning to do another column about Apple's Lightning port vs. USB-C for a while now. The story is super interesting but other stuff kept coming up. Then, just this morning, I watched a video Tech Insider put up and… Yeah.

Now, I'm fully behind Apple moving to USB-C on the iPhone. I would have loved for it to have happened with the iPhone X, even recognizing that's super easy to say as someone not responsible for, you know, actually running the product.

But, I also think the video leaves out a lot of what really should have been put in.

Rather watch than read? Hit play on the video above!

Tech Insider starts off by showing us some Lightning cables and reminding us that Apple switched to it from the venerable 30-pin Dock Connector in 2012. Not the full story, of course, but so far so fine. Then they say, today, 7-years later, it's only used on two devices: iPhone and lower end iPads.

And, not to be all nit-picky about it or anything, but I think that even, for stuff like this, accuracy matters and Lightning is actually used across a wider range of Apple products. iPhones and older and lower end iPads, sure, but also iPod touch, the Apple TV Remote, AirPods, the original Apple Pencil, even the Magic Keyboard, Magic Trackpad, and would it were not so the Magic Mouse and it's ridiculous port location lo these many years later.

But Tech Insider is already racing on to what they think is so wrong. Starting with the F word. Yes, fragmentation.

The F Word: Fragmentation

Apple updated the iPad Pro to USB-C last October but, back in March, when Apple updated the iPads non-Pro, mini 5 and Air 3 both, they left them on Lightning. Meaning, all current iPads no longer all use the same connector. Which is true, of course.

When Apple switched the iPhone to lightning in September of 2012, they switched the iPad to lightning and deputed the the very next month, and announced the iPad mini, which debuted with Lightning, right along with it.

When Apple switched the MacBook to USB-C in March of 2015, though, it took until October of 2016 for it to come to the MacBook Pro, and until October of 2018 for it to come to the MacBook Air. But, for a variety of other, unrelated issues.

They also point out that MacBooks use USB-C but that Apple still ships a Lightning to USB-A cable with iPhones — and I'll add in other Lightning devices. Meaning, you can't plug your iPhone into your MacBook without buying a separate cable.

I get that this is supposed to be a short, punchy video, but it's worth breaking that down a bit.

Like I said, Apple began switching the Mac to USB-C exclusivity with the 12-inch MacBook in 2015. The MacBook Pro switched in 2016. The MacBook Air, only last year in 2018.

The previous generation MacBook Air Apple still sells for $999 is still USB-A. As do all the previous generation MacBooks and MacBook Pros that Apple no longer sell but tons of people still use every day. Desktop Macs all still have USB-A ports as well, of course. But those don't sell anywhere nearly as well as the MacBooks. What sells even more than MacBooks, of course, in non-Apple laptops and desktops, and pretty much every single one of those has USB-A.

USB-C adoption is growing but it's safe to say it's nowhere near eclipsing USB-A as the most likely connector any particular mainstream customer — in other words, iPhone customer — will have in their home or at their office. And probably won't be for a good while still.

Now, only Apple has real numbers on how many iPhone or iPad customers connect over USB-A vs. USB-C, if even Apple has those numbers. But, as absolutely annoying and frustrating Lightning to USB-A is in the box for nerds, Lightning to USB-A would be worse for the far, far, far more numerous non-nerds out there.

And , sure, for the nerds as well, because we'd each have 2-5 family members pinging us constantly asking what the hell Apple had stuck on the ends of their cables.

What I would have preferred, going back to 2017, would have been for Apple to include a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box — wait, wait, don't "but you just said" me just yet — along with a USB-C too USB-A dongle. That way, early adopters could have their modern connector and everyone else could get along with an easy adapter. And, when and if they upgraded to a USB-C machine, they could just ditch the dongle and keep on keeping on. Apple did just that when they deleted the 3.5mm headphone jack. New cable and adapter for the old, right in the box. Not doing the same for the cable is just comes off as really, deeply inconsiderate to me.

Lightning vs. USB-C

Tech Insider then talks a little bit about why Lightning was — past tense — a good connector. So, let's break that down as well.

For 2012, Apple wanted to move from the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s design to what shipped as the iPhone 5 and, later, iPhone 5s. It not only had a taller screen but a much thinner design. So thin, Apple couldn't fit the traditional 30-pin Dock connector into it.

They needed something new. And USB-C just… didn't exist yet. It wasn't an option and wouldn't be for a couple more years. Which Apple knew, because their team was helping design and drive it. But, that same team had Lightning, and that meant Apple didn't have to wait on any committees. They could do what they wanted, when they wanted, as fast as they wanted.

One of the biggest problems with the 30-pin Dock connector wasn't just its size. It was those 30 analog pins. In the decade since Apple had first released it, a lot had changed and a lot kept changing.

We'd been through FireWire 400 and 800, analog and digital audio, VGA, DVI, and DisplayPort video. Everything I just mentioned before. And the pins inside the Dock connector had been wired and rewired countless times just trying to keep up. It just wasn't ideal for anyone.

That's why, in addition to being thin, Apple also needed Lightning to be all-digital and dynamic. That way, if audio, video, and data continued to change the way it had in the past, Apple wouldn't have to keep rewiring it just to keep it working in the future. So, years before USB-C shipped on the 12-inch MacBook, Apple made Lightning. Symmetrical and less frustrating to plug in, purely digital, so it could adapt to new standards and be more future-proof, and tiny — even smaller than USB-C ended up being — so Apple could build the next-generation devices they wanted to build.

And for anyone who remembers, never mind USB-A, but the real fragmentation that was USB-B, and all the mini USB and microUSB variants that made finding the right cable for the right device a nightmare that kinda laughs at Apple "only" plaguing customers with A and C.

Now, the problem according to Tech Insider, and for many others, is that it's proprietary.

Sure, for some people that's a problem. Personally, I think the best businesses and best experiences are usually a mix of open, standards-based, which is not the same as open, and proprietary.

More cynically, most big companies tend to keep proprietary anything that gives them control and open or standardize anything that hurts the control competitors.

Apple has a ton of proprietary tech, but the foundations of macOS and iOS are open-source BSD Unix. In the age of Internet Explorer, Apple also built Safari from the open KHTML and has kept WebKit open ever since, even as Google forked it into Blink and Chromium and Microsoft is now using that for Edge.

Google bought and kept Android open in the age of Windows Phone and BlackBerry dominance, but keeps everything that makes it oh so much money, including all the search and ad tech, locked in an adamantium box proprietary.

By making Lightning proprietary, not only did Apple avoid having to wait on any open or standards-based committees, but they also got to control the quality of the cables.

And, anyone who had to deal with USB-C in the early days will remember when the only way to tell the difference between a cable that worked and a cable that could catch fire or short out your gear were the Amazon reviews of a single Google engineer was doing out of the goodness of his heart and frustration in his soul.

The Lightning Tax

Tech Insider says Lightning being proprietary forces you to buy dongles and carry around extra cables. Totally fair. But again, so did all the different USB ports on computers, hard drives, and accessories. Did the miniUSB cable for your camera work on the microUSB port on your headphones or battery pack? Big old nope.

Tech Insider also says that Lightning being proprietary means cables cost more than USB-C cables, which can quote unquote lead people to buy counterfeit cables to save money. But, like I just said, we've been through years of discount USB-C cables being disastrous, and cheap HDMI cables failing to be able to actually transit 4K HDMI. And none of those are proprietary to Apple.

It just turns out that even in the digital age, a cable isn't just a cable, and quality matters just as much as price. And cheap cables failing, sometimes even catastrophically, is a huge problem for Amazon and the industry.

Now, even ignoring the quality issues with USB-C, especially since it's better now than it used to be, anyone trying to use USB-C still faces other problems.

Because not all USB-C cables are the same. If you need high power USB-C, you need a cable that supports USB-PD. The connectors look the same though and most people couldn't tell the cables apart at a glance. And that's still not even factoring in the various ratings and requirements for Qualcomm's QuickCharge.

If you need high speed, you have to worry about USB 2.0, 3.0, and 3.1 variants. How do you know by just looking at them? If you need super high speed, you need USB-C that supports Thunderbolt 3. Again, the connectors look the same and most people would have to look really hard for that little Thunderbolt icon, if it's there.

Tech Insider correctly points out that it can be hard to tell Lightning cables apart as well. And Apple has, unfortunately, shipped some that support faster speeds and charging than others. I understand shipping newer cables that have more features than old. I don't like newer cables that don't all have the same features. As I've said numerous times, consistency is a user benefit.

But, even at its worst, if you get or buy a Lightning Cable from Apple, you can plug it in and in the vast majority of cases, and certainly pretty much every mainstream use case, it'll just work in a way USB-C doesn't and maybe never will.

But... but... Thunderbolt 3?!

Tech Insider quips that if only Apple had another protocol, like Thunderbolt 3, it could support much faster transfer rates and a wider range of peripherals.

So, ummm, yeah… First, Thunderbolt requires PCIe lanes. Apple has implemented PCIe on iPhones and iPads but only very specifically to handle the custom storage controller they brought over from the Mac a few years ago. It's what lets iOS devices not only access the solid-state storage so quickly, but also reliably. So, you know, every shot in a burst and every frame in a video actually gets saved.

But PCIe doesn't go any further yet, certainly not out the port, which means no Thunderbolt 3 yet, even with USB-C-type connectors.

Second, Intel still controls Thunderbolt 3, which is why it's implemented on Intel Macs. Intel can and has licensed it to other manufacturers, but anyone wanting to use it on a phone, with ARM-based silicon, would have to get that license and extend that controller all the way out. And I'm frankly not aware of a single phone maker who's done that yet. Maybe for very practical, sensible reasons?

All that to say, even if and when the iPhone goes USB-C, there's nothing to say it'll go Thunderbolt 3 as well. Especially since USB-C can handle so many use cases all on its own, including external displays.

Tech Insider points out that Lightning cables are notorious for breaking and fraying. And that's absolutely true. But that's the cable. That has nothing to do with the connector on the end of it. Swap that connector out for a USB-C on, and the same cable will fray the same way.

Oh wait, those cables already have USB-C or USB-A on the other end. And same goes for the double USB-C, even the old Magsafe cables from back in the day.

This is a problem. It's just not a Lightning problem.

Tech Insider says having different connectors on different products, like USB-C on Macs and Lightning on iPhones, is very un-Apple like.

But it's very Apple-like. Never mind the weird transition years between Firewire 400 and Firewire 800, VGA and DIV, and DisplayPort, and Thunderbolt. Even Magsafe 1 and Magsafe 2. Those are all… peripheral.

Far as I'm aware, no Mac ever shipped with a 30-pin Dock connector bolted on the side, not even at the height of the iPod. And that's the direct parallel here.

Then, of course, we get to the crux: That Apple is only sticking with Lightning so it can suck in those tasty, tasty MFi licensing fees from vendors.

Which, sure, money is money. And Apple doesn't disclose how much it makes from MFi. But, whatever it is, the most it could possibly be, is no more than a rounding error compared to how much Apple makes from its device business. I mean, Apple probably spends more on developing and implementing the machining processes to chamfer edges on their products than they pull in from licensing Lightning.

If Apple was at all worried about losing MFi revenue, they could likely replace it tenfold, a hundredfold, by selling T-Shirts they have a the company stores or the pins they give out at WWDC.

Those are all ridiculous examples. But, yeah.

We've already seen Apple move the latest iPads Pro to USB-C because it made more sense for that device at that time.

My educated guess is it'll be the same with iPhone — switching to USB-C when the benefits it provide more than make up for the pain hundreds of thousands of people will experience having to go through a second major port change in less than the 10 years they had with the previous one.

Tech Insider points that last part out as well. But it's not just dongles and cables. It's the huge ecosystem of accessories that has been built up around Lightning, from camera and mic attachments to speakers and in-car entertainment systems.

Tech Insider finishes off by going over some of the rumors concerning iPhone 11 and whether or not it'll be that inflection point — that moment when Apple switches the iPhone to USB-C.

And, like they say, we'll have to wait and see. Maybe Apple will stick with Lightning for another year. Maybe they'll drop the port entirely and go full-on wireless. Or maybe they have something else entirely new planned for post-Lightning. Hell, given their history, maybe there'll be a mini or microUSB-C by then, or shortly after then, and we'll get another video on that.

Like I said at the very beginning. I'd be far better for me if Apple switched from Lightning to USB-C. I could use one cable to charge my iPhone, iPad Pro, and MacBook Pro. It'd make traveling so much more convenient. But this isn't about me. I may be a nerd but I'm I nerd who can perspective take and think about other people — the vast majority of other people — with needs very different than my own.

A couple of years ago, I would have said the disruption would have far outweighed the advantages. A year or so from now, I think the advantages will far outweigh the disruption. This year, it's borderline. And it'll probably come down to the economics of making the change. iPad Pro is relatively small for everyone from Apple to customers. iPhone is a much bigger cost to all involved.

At least those are my thoughts. I'd love to hear yours. Hit like if you do, subscribe if you haven't already, and then hit up the comments below.

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Rene Ritchie

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.