iPhone 5 owners shouldn't be scared of Lightning

Jon Honeyball dismisses concerns about Apple's decision to move to the Lightning connector on the iPhone 5

Jon Honeyball
17 Jan 2013

Some people are taking the view that the new Lightning connector on the iPhone 5 is indeed "very very frightening", if I might be allowed a fair-usage quotation from the works of Her Majesty the Queen.

It’s a big change, it isn’t backwards-compatible without adapters, and from every single imaginable angle it’s going to be a right royal pain to implement. I have plenty of the old cables: every one of my travel bags has at least one in it, and my cars have all had little cigarette lighter socket-to-USB adapters and the obligatory iPhone connector so I can charge up an iPhone or iPad on the move.

In the car I use a TomTom 940 for satnav, but also as a hands-free kit for the phone connected via Bluetooth. It works just fine for that task, and means I can put the phone away in a glove box wired up to an iPhone power cable.

With Lightning, all that’s going to change. It isn’t the same, and I have to buy new cables for the iPhone 5 and now for the new iPads too. A loud growl was heard across the land emanating from Cambridgeshire, especially when I discovered that I couldn’t order spare cables from Apple during the initial launch period of iPhone 5. A large cup of coffee has restored me to calmness and my horns have retracted some way.

We have to remember that the old connector has been around for a very long time indeed. In fact, if you go back to the beginning it supports FireWire, including power, to allow for connection to the original iPod. Then it was changed to USB power and data, and then video was added, too. All this turned it into a connector where there’s just no space left, and nowhere left to go, yet it’s still in effect supporting old and no-longer-used connection methods. Clearly it’s time to make a change, and if you really have to make a change then it’s best to make a big one that will last you an equally long time.

What Apple appears to have done is extremely clever

That’s just what Apple has done with the Lightning connector. Some people are moaning that it really should have been a micro-USB connector, which misses the point entirely. Micro-USB is already an old standard, and it doesn’t support a ton of stuff that Apple will want to do today and in the future.

Micro-USB might be prevalent on other makers’ smartphones, but it’s a horrible plug-and-socket arrangement – you must have it the right way up and it’s rather difficult to tell up from down unless you look very closely. It’s fiddly and awkward for people with poor eyesight or limited dexterity, so why on earth would Apple want to implement it?

What Apple appears to have done is extremely clever. The plug is simple to use, can go in either way up and has a positive, easy engagement action. Both location and insertion are simple and reliable, but it has only a very small number of pins, so how can it do all the things that are required? The answer is very clever indeed: the plug configuration changes on the fly, depending on what it’s plugged into. In other words, there appears to be a standard handshake going on at initial insertion where the requirements are negotiated, then the pin layout is changed dynamically to support that particular mode.

The advantage of this is huge. It means you can create future operational modes for this plug and cable, which you know nothing about right now; the system can reconfigure itself to provide the necessary channels of communication and power combinations for new modes. A cynic might say: "Aha, this allows Apple to lock out particular combinations, and thus lock out some third-party devices." Well yes, it does, but you’d need a licence to use this connector anyway, so this is a moot point.

I applaud the decision to go to Lightning. If you’re going to make a change then make one that really is a leap forward, and isn’t just a change of plug for the sake of fashion or size constraints. Come up with something clever that’s reconfigurable on the fly, and which can be used for a whole host of purposes.

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