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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The battle for the next iPhone connector

Since USB-C first appeared on the 2015 MacBook, Apple users have seen it appear on more and more products, usually with its more powerful friend Thunderbolt 3 along for the ride into battle.

USB-C met a fierce adversary on its road to total control, though: the Lightning port.

Lightning first appeared on the iPhone 5, and quickly took over as the default connector on just about everything Apple sells that isn’t a computer. On my desk alone, I have Lightning ports on my keyboard, Trackpad, AirPods case and iPhone.

There’s only one realm where Lightning has fallen to USB-C: the iPad Pro. That change has made using audio interfaces, external storage and other accessories much easier to use with the device, even if other, lesser iPads are still under the iron fist of Lightning.

The truth is, many of us would like to see USB-C take over everything in the Land of Apple. There’s a thin line between a universal standard and port tyranny, but outside of the dongle tax, USB-C has been a fairly gracious master.

The strongest soldier left wearing the colors of Lightning is a true device god among mortals: the iPhone. But, according to rumors, like any good fighter, the iPhone may have a secret weapon up its sleeve—reporting that the iPhone 12 will use Lightning, but the iPhone 13 will use a combination of wireless charging and a Smart Connector to remove ports entirely.

Talk about cutting USB-C off at the knees. The iPhone could be poised to avoid a battle entirely. What a power move.

I worry, however, it’s a move that the world isn’t ready for. There’s no doubt that changing the connector on the iPhone is a massive deal. For years, every holiday meal was complete only once a family member pointed to their photo of the 30-pin Dock Connector on their mantle and wished for the “good old days.” Now with hindsight, it’s clear Lightning was better equipped to lead Apple into the 2010s, but the 2020s may end up being a totally different landscape.

USB-C proponents praise the port’s universality. “A single cable can charge anything!” they cry, carrying their reversible banners through the cities.

I stopped some of these ardent USB-C fans on the street and asked them about this report. “Being stuck with wireless charging, or using some weird Smart Connector charger makes the iPhone less useful, especially when traveling,” one said. “At least Lightning means you can charge your phone while laying in bed.”

Another fan shared their concerns about how to use a port-less phone in their car, or how external battery banks would work.

“I don’t want something even more proprietary than Lightning,” said another fan. “The Smart Connector may be cool, but if Apple uses it to make some Surface-like connector to charge, I’m just going to switch to the—”

The end of this comment was cut off when the speaker was distracted by a passerby holding a sign that read “Death to the Smart Connector!” (Stephen, this is why you should never visit Dongletown.—j.s.)

The future of the iPhone connector strategy is unknown. While USB-C has become the standard in far-away phone provinces, some want to see it come to the iPhone’s corner of the world as well. But I think even USB-C fans would agree that a Lightning port is better than no port at all.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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