Why does the iPhone 5 have Lightning instead of Micro USB?

Rainer Brockerhoff’s Solipsism Gradient blog:

People keep asking why Apple didn’t opt for the micro-USB connector. The answer is simple: that connector isn’t smart enough. It has only 5 pins: +5V, Ground, 2 digital data pins, and a sense pin, so most of the dock connector functions wouldn’t work – only charging and syncing would. Also, the pins are so small that no current plug/connector manufacturer allows the 2A needed for iPad charging.

Many people have also pointed out another advantage of Lightning – it’s reversible. Micro USB is tiny and easily damaged if you try to force it in the wrong way (I know from personal experience).

Brockerhoff also posits a plausible reason for why the Lightning to 30-pin dock connector is so expensive. Read on for details.

(Thanks to Nick Farina on Twitter for linking me to this.)

  • Sharon_Sharalike

    Is there anybody who actually likes micro USB connectors? They’re a pain in the ass to plug in. They’d probably have already been replaced everywhere if they weren’t required by that short-sighted law.

    • raises hand

      They work well for me.

      • You answered a different question than what was being asked.

        Let’s rephrase the question: absent the utility of the micro-USB, do you find the actual connector itself to be a pleasant experience? Personally, while I do like how small and ubiquitous it is, I find it fiddly and delicate. You have to line things up just right, rather than it guiding the connection into the port through the use of beveled or rounded edges and the like. I’ve also had my share of plugs that I’ve had to pry back open after something got set on them and crushed them in, or else had to straighten out a number of other ones that got torqued to the side after a little tug on the cable while it was plugged in.

        So, yes, I like them for what they do, but I don’t like the connector itself at all. That, to me, is a good argument for replacing the connector with something more robust and well-considered.

        • I have had one, maybe two, mess up where the prongs on the top stopped coming up so it wouldn’t stay in properly. Other than that, I have 0 issue plugging them in. It is no different than a regular USB, the old 30 pin, firewire, etc to me. All of them you have to line up properly and push.

          Looking around, I don’t see one plug on my desk that is problematic but maybe I don’t take my plugs serious enough.

    • deviladv

      I hate them actually. They feel so fragile and they are one sided. It’s hard to tell which direction they go, comparatively speaking. I’m always worried about mashing the connector or pins. My son damaged the pins on a cable and on a samsung phone.

      The most under-sung feature of this cable is that it’s reversible. Are there any commonly used cables out like this? Have there every been any cables reversible like this? With a whisper, Apple has set a standard for cables that prevents damage to cables and devices from accidental mashing. Next problem to fix is the dust and lint problem.

    • kvanh

      eh, i’ve not had significant problems with them (IOW i haven’t broken anything yet). The non-reversability is annoying though, especially in such a small cable where it’s hard to tell which side is which (and the habit of cable makers marking the up side of the cable with black-on-black indicators is stupid.)

      i am down to 1 micro-USB device when I travel, my bluetooth headset is it.

  • I don’t mean to sound dim, but what other functions does the dock connector serve besides charging and syncing. I think that’s all I use mine for.

    • Chuck

      Most popularly I would say audio and video out, don’t believe USB supports that, it’s definitely not designed for video. You can also use the dock connector to control playback on the device from a peripheral, as well as a whole host of other forms of input from peripherals.

      But yes, most people will only be using it for charging, less for syncing due to iCloud or people who simply have no need to sync.

      • Oh, okay, that makes sense. Those functions just aren’t on my radar. Thanks!

      • Sam Wagner

        USB has enough bandwidth that audio and video and be done with it. Many phone have had USB to micro HMDI conversions for a while now.

    • Jim H

      Speakers, docks of all kinds, stereo microphones, camera connection kit, credit card readers and more. Just look online.

  • Chuck

    The interesting part to me is to see what kinds of speeds this can get. I’m long time annoyed by Apple’s decision to go USB only for it’s 30-pin connector (iPods used to still work with the 30pin-FW cable but at a certain point they pulled that).

    • Sam Wagner

      If they supported USB 3.0, which is fairly common on todays computers, things would be much faster too.

  • Adriano Geletes

    I hate micro USB connectors!

    But more important, if I buy an Apple product, I want something special, I want products that are different. Think different! That’s why I buy Apple products!

    The only connector I wished for, was a magsafe like connector with all the functioning of a 30pin or the Lightning connector! That would make every wireless charging device needless. Maybe we will see one in a few years, but my guess is that the iPhone 8 or 9 won’t have any connectors at all.

  • Pretty detailed speculation. Seems like a smart guy.

  • xynta_man

    Micro-USB also isn’t future-proof, since it doesn’t support the USB 3.0 spec – it’s only a matter of time until devices will hit the USB 2.0 spec speed bottleneck.

    • Lightning is USB 2.

      • xynta_man

        It currently is, yes. Because there’s currently no point in making it USB 3.0 (the devices aren’t hitting the bottlenecks of speed, plus USB 3.0 is still not widely adopted among users). But the Lightning connector can be used as USB 3.0 in future, while the micro-USB plug can’t.

        • Not true. Micro-USB 3 is already targeted to make it’s way to smartphones by the end of this year. Have a source for your “can’t happen” claim?

          • kvanh

            micro-USB 3 plug is a different plug than the regular micro USB plug. I believe the old plugs can be used to charge a micro USB 3 device, but you can’t get USB 3 sync speeds with it.

            The statement “the micro-USB plug can’t” be used for 3.0 in the future is correct as it was focused on data transfer, not charging.

          • Allllrrrighttty.

          • kvanh

            you disagree? You have something that indicates a micro-USB 2 cable can work at USB 3 speeds? What’s the point of the extra data lines on the micro USB 3 plug if this is the case?

          • I’m not at all trying to go round and round all day about this as it is such a trivial issue. Consider my last response me conceding and just letting it go.

            Lightning = new money for Apple and aligns w/ their future plans. Micro-usb = everyone use the one’s they already have (ie – no new money). No other justification is needed.

            Either would have work. Apple chose their option based on the direction they want to go. What’s the big discussion/deal here? Are we seriously going back and forth about the plug? Does micro-usb really have to be proven as wrong to justify Lightning?

            All rhetorical. Have a great day. 😉

          • kvanh

            Nope, but you’ll have to pay for new cabling to get Micro USB 3 speeds as well, using what you already have only gets you USB 2 speeds (that’s for all USB 2 cables, not just the micro ones).

          • Sam Wagner

            I’m fine with new cables, not with all new accessories because the connectors are built in.

          • Sam Wagner

            The standard micro usb (which is micro USB micro A) isn’t fully compatible with USB 3.0, but USB micro AB is.

      • Bob

        Since when does USB2 include HDMI output?

        • Who said it did? When will Lightning allow HDMI out? Adapters will allow both to be possible so a non-issue to me.

          Please clarify the intent of your question though as I don’t see the relevance.

          • Bob

            Even the 30 pin connector included dedicated HDMI pins. Neither 30 pin nor the newer port are just a reshaped USB port as some here have implied.

          • StetsonG

            Lightning to HDMI and VGA adapters are coming according to Apple.

            The current Lightning cable that ships with devices is USB 2.0, but I would be really surprised if Apple did not design Lightning to be compatible with USB 3.0 and maybe even Thunderbolt via future cables.

            Going with Micro-USB 2 would not have given them those capabilities.

          • Yep, adapters. I have a Micro-USB HDMI adapter too.

          • StetsonG

            A USB device that creates an HDMI output is different from a cable that allows native HDMI output. We don’t know which the Lightning HDMI cable will do until it’s released.

            And why are adapters a bad thing? The only way to do HDMI and VGA without any adapters would be to put full size HDMI and VGA port on the phone. Is that really an improvement?

          • Read my comments. I’m not opposed to anything Apple did here but the ridiculous justifications are…well…ridiculous.

            Bottom line, they easily could have done micro-USB if they wanted to. No need to bash micro to make Lightning look better.

          • jimothyGator

            Bashing micro USB isn’t necessary, but pointing out benefits of Lightning over micro USB is entirely germane to the discussion.

          • Yep

      • StetsonG

        No, the cable included is Lightning to USB 2, but nowhere has it been stated that Lightning itself is limited to USB 2.

  • lkalliance

    Talking about the new cord here just started off an argument. About walled gardens and how terrible they are and how Apple “won’t let me do what I want to do.” These arguments depress me, because I’m happy in the walled garden. It smells nice and the grounds are kept clean. Being happy in it suggests I’m not a power user. And you know what? I’m not. In fact I rarely sit down to my computer any more outside of working with photography. So much of what I used to do there I do on my iPhone.

    So there’s this argument I can’t escape: “let me do what I want” vs. “convenience and aesthetic satisfaction.” Amazing to me that discussing a simple device cable inflamed the argument yet again. Depressing.

  • kvanh

    Apple is moving circuitry from the device to the cable and requiring cables to be smarter. I think this is a good move. Instead of trying to provide all possible signals in a single dock, the adapter has to tell the device what signals to provide.

    This allows for a smaller device (no need for an additional digital audio converter for the analog pins on the dock connector, move it to the cable. No need for circuitry for video signal conversions, move it to the device.)

    Downside is more expensive cables, but upside is more flexibility in what the cables can do (new video standard comes along, make a new adapter, not add circuitry to the device), and you only need to buy the functionality you need.

    • KyleRay

      It’s not the cables that Smart! ….it’s the Port that has Smart circuits within the devices. Now Samsung has completely re-engineered the MLH Standard under the 5 wire USB (Micro-USB) for the future w/o the need for a the lock down Apple has engineered to encrypt this new port. But Samsung isn’t paranoid about micro managing to death every aspect of the products either.

      But first let me touch on this writer claiming micro USB can’t handle the 2 amps to charge iPad 3. Not true….. because Google Nexus 7’s power adapter is 2 amps and it charges it much faster than any other adapter I have. So that theory just won’t fly!

      So now back to SAMSUNG’s GSIII MLH Adapter; because it’s now using an 11 pin OTG MLH Adapter so you can both charge via usb and stream HDMI to an HDTV. This is the first device that can do this from within the device and all it needs is an Adapter that only cost around $15. But more importantly this new port can also handle either USB 3.0 and HDMI 1.4, but it can also charge and run two HDMI ports (multi-screen) as well. But these features won’t be taken advantage of until the next Exynos 5 Dual (5250) with ARM A15 features comes out.

      Where along with having Multiscreen (all Exynos chips have had) capabilities, it’ll have USB 3.0 (+2.0) MLH Multi-screen HDMI 1.4 for utilizing A15’s Hardware Virtualization mode with it’s dedicated hypervisor for booting a separate OS to two screens even. Along with Galaxy Note’s feature displaying PiP, PoP and side by side multi-screen. So now when Galaxy Tab 11.8″ comes out, you can run Windows 8 on one side and Android on the other with them being completely synced for drag n drop sharing between the two operating systems!

      So what I want to know is why SAMSUNG can design a port capable of being backwards compatible with a Standard Micro USB port that also is capable of harnessing the future with an 11 pin MLH port? The only thing I can come up with, is their thirst to micro manage their products and users to death. For me it’s like realizing that Apple is striving for that “Absolute Power”, not realizing that Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely!

  • kvanh

    So for the heck of it I dug around on Amazon for Micro USB (or android) docks and cradles. This wasn’t super extensive just a quick look so I’d like to know if I’m wrong, but basically what i found is:

    a) most docks are specific to a model of a phone. A few (DROID X and DROID X2) support more than one phone. b) some of the non-specific docks seem to get dinged in reviews for not working well with a lot of phones. I found an iHome alarm clock that requires both the micro usb and audio cables be plugged in before working and it gets dinged in reviews because people can only use it by setting their phone flat on it. Plus it won’t sleep the phone or otherwise control it.

    I dunno, I don’t think it’s the standardized plug that really made apple accessories usable for so long, it’s the standardized placement and the additional control circuitry that made the docks desirable.

    Apple could standardize at least it’s own placement of the micro USB port, but this would not guarantee interoperability of accessories with non-Apple stuff (which is what it seems a lot of people want.) And either the USB only nature or perhaps dock manufacturers don’t want to support the control functionality of USB or phone manufacturers don’t have standardized USB control signalling that would work cross phones.

    In other words adopting the standardized adapter does not seem to make for a standardized accessory and phone manufacturers are pretty good and making people re-buy accessories even with a standard plug.

  • Vasko Bozinovski

    Why are people so STUPID they struggle to plug in a Micro-USB connector? Is it that hard in your life to plug something in without appearing like you have parkinsons…

  • kalidas

    There’s a an organization called the EU regulations – they mandate USB on all phones. Guess they have no idea what innovation and efficiency mean. In any case Apple have created an adapter for to make them happy.

  • There are many accessories that use more than 2 pins for data. Medical equipment being one of them.

  • David Vega

    Micro USB is the worst cable I’ve ever deal with. The lighting cable is so much better by far light years away!

  • Graig

    I don’t understand why micro usb was ever used in he first place. Terrible connector. Ugly looking. Breaks real easy. Breaks if you put it in backwards. Doesn’t stay in well. Thanks apple for making something better. Easier. Smaller. Sturdier. I don’t want to have to keep buying new phones because the micro usb port broke.

  • Graig

    Plus how are you going to stream movies over a micro USB port?

  • Zubair Kazi

    “Micro USB is tiny and easily damaged if you try to force it in the wrong way (I know from personal experience)” Maybe not being drunk all the time might help. I have like four devices with micro USB and it works wonderfully.