Lightning or USB-C

September 12, 2016

Apple’s newly announced iPhone 7 does not have a headphone jack, requiring headphone-listeners to use a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter, Lightning headphones, or wireless headphones.

Lightning is Apple’s proprietary connector. You only see it on iPhones, iPads, and iPods (which are, today, essentially cut-down iPhones). The connector was introduced alongside the iPhone 5 and the rest of the mobile line-up refresh that same year. USB-C did not exist at the time, but Lightning is very similar to it. (Apple helped design USB-C alongside other companies as part of the USB 3.0 Promoter Group.)

People were upset about the change to Lightning, even though it was a better connector than the 30-pin in every regard. They had a 30-pin connector iPhone dock, used the same cable to charge their iPad, or worked in the media and needed something to talk about.

This headphone change on the iPhone 7 was the perfect time to move the iPhone to USB-C, as well as the rest of Apple’s product line. USB-C uses USB 3.1 to provide high-bandwidth power and data, exactly like Lightning. The only problem with it is not everyone has a USB 3.1 port yet. But it’s not like everyone had a USB 1.0 port before Apple put it in the iMac either.

Maybe the media fervor over the switch from 30-pin to Lightning held them back from switching to USB-C. But now any eventual switch from Lightning to USB-C in subsequent iPhones will be even more painful. People will have purchased Lightning headphones that they only bought because Apple removed the headphone jack. Companies will have invested in producing those Apple-only Lightning headphones.

Here’s the breakdown of ports used across Apple’s current product line (this will likely change in October 2016 when Apple announces more product refreshes, but it’s unlikely I’ll update this page then):

There might be some things I’ve missed, like charging cords (which on the MacBook is through USB-C), but the point stands: USB-C can and should supercede more than just USB-A.

Thunderbolt 3 will use USB-C, so Macs with Thunderbolt will get USB-C ports, too. But USB-C, USB-A, Lightning, Mini-Display Port, and technically even HDMI on some products, but maybe they should stay, could all be compressed into USB-C. Perhaps desktops could keep one USB-A 3.1 port and one Mini-Display Port as legacy for a product cycle or two. If Thunderbolt 2 doesn’t work on a CPU with Thunderbolt 3, and if in that case Thunderbolt 3 doesn’t support Mini-Display Port, then nevermind having a legacy Mini-Display Port. But I’d rather have more of the ports I use, especially of a less-proprietary standard, like USB, than a smattering of various seldom-used ports.

The European Union also wants all phones to use the same charger, but they settled on micro-USB-A (USB 2.0). There’s no teeth to it, though. They just require companies provide an adapter if they want to use something else. They should update it in a few years to USB-C (USB 3.1). But that requirement could have been another reason to move to USB-C.