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Why the iPhone might lose its Lightning port

Fake iPhone 13 mock up with no Lightning port
Fake iPhone 13 mock up with no Lightning port (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

There are rumors going around — because there are always rumors going around — that Apple is going to kill the Lightning port on the iPhone. Not to replace it with USB-C, no... just kill it to watch all the wires die.

Now, it probably won't be with any of the iPhone 12 models released this year. Maybe as soon as the next iPhone next year, though. The entire industry is moving that way, not just Apple.

A lot of people hate the idea. A couple kinda like it. Me... I just want to explain it.

But why though?

Almost four years ago, Apple deleted the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7. HTC had a bunch of phones without headphone jacks years before Apple, including the very first Android phone, but when Apple does it, because they drive so much product, it just gets so many headlines.

Apple's pitch was that the 3.5mm jack was an old, outdated, uni-tasker and that anything it could do their own Lightning port could do better. Except, you know, work with cross-device headphones and allow for simultaneous charging and audio without a dongle.

It also made water resistance better because, while almost all ports are sealed these days, you're still supposed to dry them off before plugging in anything electric, and a lot of people just don't. So, you still get corrosion and the occasional shorts.

Same with the Home button Apple replaced the very same year. They deleted the mechanical switch and replaced it with a proprioceptive lie — a Taptic response that only made it feel like it was clicking.

Because those mechanical switches wore out in a way the virtual feedback presumably wouldn't. Same with other companies replacing side buttons with squeezes and the like.

Now, if Apple had used that moment in history, the moment when they deleted the headphone jack, to also switch from Lightning to USB-C, to something that almost every device would make standard, and would allow almost any headset to plug in with, albeit still at the expense of charging, maybe the world would be very different right now.

But, for a variety of reasons I explained a few weeks ago, that just didn't happen. AirPods happened instead. And, the very next year, inductive charging.

So, we're left with the Lightning port. And now that might go away and for the same reasons.

To simplify production and water resistance. To reduce complexity and mechanical failure. To stop people from plugging cables that fray into ports that get wet and dirty. And, of course, to prevent bad actors from plugging in cables to try and pull out private data.

To take one more step towards the kinda wireless world… or if we're still not ready, to take yet one more infuriating push.

What about charging?

iPhone X wirelessly charging

iPhone X wirelessly charging (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

So, if Apple deletes the Lightning Port, we'll obviously have to charge inductively. Which some people call wirelessly. But since I still have to plug a wire in from the charger to the wall, I'm still going to call it inductively.

The Palm Pre famously launched with inductive charging more than a decade ago. Various Android phones have had it for almost as long. Apple introduced their version back with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X and, blessedly, stuck to the Qi standard.

Now, even though Qi chargers are a standard, they're not ubiquitous, not the way old USB-A or new USB-C adapter bricks are.

They're also bigger, because instead of just a small USB-C or Lightning plug on the end, they have a big honking hockey puck that you need to stick your phone on top of.

And, if you're trying to use your phone while charging it, Qi chargers make it much harder to do that as well.

They're also still nowhere nearly as efficient as plug-in chargers. In other words, they don't transfer power as well so you get all the heat without all the charge, and that's not as good for long term battery health.

But, most fast chargers aren't great for battery health either and a lot of people still get super excited about those anyway, because for a lot of people convenience now beats longevity later. So…

¯_(ツ)_/º¯

All this to say that while inductive charging isn't perfect, this part at least is a solved problem.

What about data transfers?

AirDrop

AirDrop (Image credit: iMore)

Once-upon-a-time, you used to have to plug your iPhone into your computer to transfer everything and anything. Never mind your music, even your contacts. Seriously. Ask your grandparents.

But then, starting with iOS 5, Apple took the iPhone to iCloud, and most of our data just started to sync. Same with services from Google, Microsoft, and many, many others. Eventually up to and including passwords, photos and videos, documents, and more.

With iOS 8, we got continuity, so we could Air Drop files, hand-off positional state in apps, tether without… a tether…

And streaming began to overtake downloading and wire syncing, from Spotify to Apple Music, Netflix to Apple TV, Kindle to Apple Books.

Wired connections are still much, much faster. But Apple's never even included the faster, more modern wired connections on iPhones.

Wireless, on the other, hand, is a different story entirely. Apple's always been among the first to add better and faster wireless connections, including Wi-Fi 6 on the latest iPhones.

That means even a couple minutes of 4K video isn't torturous to transfer. But anything longer… and likely anything 8K when that becomes a thing, probably still will be.

So, again, it's not a perfect replacement for wired. It trades significant utility for significant convenience. But it's also a solved problem.

What about troubleshooting?

Reseting iPhone

Reseting iPhone (Image credit: iMore/Rene Ritchie)

Where things start to get tricky is with system restores, both basic and DFU. You know, when a software update or something else goes wrong and you have to plug into iTunes or the Finder and factory reset and reload your iPhone. How would you plug in without a plug to… in?

The Apple Watch and Apple TV both have hidden ports but they're only meant for an AppleCare technician to use. And as frustrating as it is to have to take or send your Watch or TV in for servicing, it'll be even more frustrating to have to do that with your phone.

And this is currently an unsolved problem. At least on the iPhone. Apple's introducing something pretty new and cool on Apple Silicon Macs later this year:

Basically, a minimal, separate, macOS environment in a hidden container that lets you reinstall macOS, even macOS Recovery if and when you need to.

Could that work for an iPhone with iOS and a form of iOS Recovery utility and internet restore on board?

We'll have to wait and see, but let me know your thoughts in the comments.

What about my %^$& accessories?

AirPods with iPhone 7

AirPods with iPhone 7 (Image credit: iMore)

Another issue is existing accessories. When Apple switched from the 30-pin Dock connector to the Lightning port in 2012, people were mad.

They had all sorts of cables and docks and sound systems and in-car systems with Dock connectors on them, and didn't much appreciate the one way ticket to Dongle Town. Sorry, pedants, sorry. Adapter-ville. And that was after a decade of the 30-pin.

That's been one of the major arguments against going USB-C as well — all the mainstream iPhone owners, just going about their business, and if you swap their ports, they'll cut you.

Now, just imagine what they'll do if you don't just swap them, you delete them entirely.

People who use HDMI or other AV adapters, or camera kits, or plug in mics or god, CarPlay.

Apple can count on time and new features making some of that obsolete. But CarPlay? Even with the wireless version starting to trickle out, the OG wired version isn't going anywhere for a decade.

So, what's the answer there, an Apple Wireless to Lightning dongle, sorry, adapter, like the AirPods to 3.5mm headphone jack dongle some of us were using on planes?

If you think there better be good answers to all of this before we see any of that, drop a like below.

What about security?

On the flip side, in addition to removing a potential point of mechanical failure, deleting the Lightning port also removes a potential attack vector.

We've seen physical access be translated into digital access numerous times over the years.

Compromised accessories, evil house-workers, and people trying to trick users into plugging into malicious charging terminals is why Apple added "Do you Trust" popups to iOS a few years ago.

Likewise, the companies that collect and sell iOS exploits also lease or sell boxes that try to break in over a hard wire.

Removing that access won't suddenly make the iPhone intrusion-proof, but it will mitigate against those types of intrusions.

And, if and when Apple gets an illegitimate search and seizure request demanding they help break into a device, they can answer in their most very favorite way — it's not that we won't do it, it's that we can't do it.

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.

14 Comments
  • I will never buy an iPhone without a data port. One, I have a rather large music library that would take ages to download. Two, wireless charging is flaky at best. Three, I rather like my earPods that came with my iPhone, and intend to use them as long as I can. I hope that Apple realises that I will switch to Android (and all of the problems that includes) before I buy a port-less iPhone. It's bad enough that they are taking away all of the ports on non-Pro Apple computers.
  • You will regret switching to Android, since they will copy Apple withing one generation, just like they dumped headphone ports. I have zero problems with wireless charging by the way.
  • I'm also thinking about getting my first Android this year because of this. I hate Lightning and want a USB-C phone. I really miss my USB-C Windows Phones with Qi. I am a road warrior for work, so the CarPlay/charging situation without a physical port is too much. Apple obviously doesn't understand road warriors since they also refuse to give users offline maps. It's frustrating beyond belief, so I think Android might be a better choice for me this time around.
  • They could do like the iPad and have the smart connector (which could transfer items quicker than OTA). Also Apple is not worried about losing 1 customer. Not to mention if you switch to android you will need an adaptor to use those headphones (which also would probably work with an adaptor on the port-less iPhone. Also why do you need to download lots of gigs of music?
  • You forgot the "What About CarPlay" What will the millions of cars out there do that do not have wireless CarPlay? I'm guess just not get a new iPhone util you trade in your car for the new one? Truth is I'm not buying a new $70k Mercese just to get CarPlay in order to upgrade my iPhone. Thanks Apple but I'm guessing Android Auto will be in my future.
  • He didn't forget it. It is in there in the 'Accessories'. If you can call a $35K car an iPhone accessory. A potential option promoted was an adapter, sort of like a 12 South AirFly. A 'dongle' you plug into the USB port you now plug your lightning cable into, that in effect makes your car now Wireless AirPlay capable. Would work for me. Would make that Qi charge plate in the car actually useful. Right now it is sort of superfluous since I have to plug in the iPhone anyway.
  • But most cars have no Qi charging. So you would need to plug in a Wireless CarPlay adapter and a Qi charger. Where is that all going to fit? Apple would be very stupid to pursue an iPhone with no port. USB-C is the future, plain and simple. This issue is the #1 reason I am considering switching to Android this fall.
  • Maybe use a smart connector like on the iPad that would plug into the USB ports in your car. Or I am sure someone will make a wireless car play adaptor.
  • Wireless chargers are so good, and so cheap, I would have no problem going with one of them rather than some block that takes up space in my kit. Have a charger everywhere (including the car) and who cares if there's a lightning port? I'm sure whatever loss happens from such a removal will be compensated with some other trick. It wasn't a $70K Mercedes. It was a 5 Series BMW. But that's far from the only car it will work with. Any car with NFC can work with the right update. I bet the company that has a USB dongle right now to work wirelessly with CarPlay will have a new adapter for phones without ports.
  • This is a very smart move. I mean, it’s obvious that tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people worldwide will gladly buy new cars so that they could upgrade to the new iPhone. Brilliant.
  • There are already wireless CarPlay adapters on the market that will make ANY car that supports CarPlay wireless.
  • I don't think Apple will drop the lightning port for the iPhone unless they have a practical and workable solution that is convenient for users.
  • Rene! What about iOS software developers? Xcode is able to deploy code wirelessly to iOS / iPadOS devices its been paired with, but it's hardly at the same speed or reliability as a wired connection. I'm sure there are developers that do all their development wirelessly with their devices (and all of us do everything we can in the simulator), but....I don't know any. It's always been a bit of an interesting curiosity to me, that just doesn't work well enough and seamlessly enough to be my main development workflow. I mean, I hope you don't think this is solipsistic on my part, because I totally get that end users are the important users, but developers......unless we all are happy using our devices with Apple's built-in apps only.....doesn't developer efficiency matter, like.....a lot? A few seconds shaved off every compile-link-install-debug cycle....mean a lot at the end of the day. I purchased the ridiculously expensive 28 core Mac Pro (as expensive as a cheap car; meanwhile I drive a 1999 Honda Civic CX), just because I want a faster Swift compiler. And you know what? My productivity has rocketed since I bought this - just having something incrementally faster makes my output so much greater. Wireless i-devices promise to eat some of this productivity back, to take a few more seconds to install, to be more failure-prone, to eat up time while I reboot phones, re-launch Xcode, turn things on and off to get the Mac + iDevice talking to each other again smoothly when something goes awry. Doesn't this matter, a little? Didn't it warrant a few comments in your piece? Not feeling the love, buddy. OK, seriously, I love your pieces, keep 'em up. I love these iMore Rene pieces because I can skip the video and read, unlike Rene's YouTube stuff, which is also awesome, but I can't stop long enough to watch an entire video, whereas I'll gladly read text. That's just me, I guess.
  • Car Play is nice, because then the iPhone stays charged while doing GPS. A far bigger deal for thousands, probably tens of thousands now, physicians, is that our ButterflyIQ pocket ultrasounds plug into the Lightning port to function. It is a $2000 tool that I bought last year and hope to use for at least 5 years before upgrading. I suppose I will just buy an iPhone 11 in another year when they are the cheap one...