In 2009, the European Union convinced 10 of the top cellphone manufacturers to abandon proprietary connections for charging cellphone batteries. A universal connection would ensure that the chargers consumers buy today will work with the phone they purchase tomorrow. That means fewer chargers and cables in landfills, where they could potentially leak lead, mercury and other harmful chemicals. The manufacturers decided to use micro-USB chargers, and the connectors have since become the norm on cellphones, e-readers, MP3 players, digital cameras and much more.
However, not everyone has embraced the micro-USB standard. Most notably, Apple, one of the 10 that agreed to the EU’s request, is only compliant thanks to an adapter. And much to the chagrin of some consumers, with the release of the iPhone 5 and the new Lightning connector, it appears that Apple has every intention to avoid micro-USB for the foreseeable future.
So why is Apple so resistant to adopt the micro-USB standard? Let’s take a look.
One reason Apple has insisted on using proprietary connectors is because its connectors have ability to do more than just charge and sync. For example, the iPod Out feature, which extends iPod functionality to compatible devices using Apple’s own user interface, is possible thanks to the Apple’s new 30-pin Lightning connection. The same port can also output the iPhone/iPod/iPad display to an HDMI television through an adapter.
Of course, this could all be accomplished by using separate ports – a micro-USB port for charging and a proprietary port to handle the A/V heavy lifting. But splitting the two would mean trying to add another port to an already-cramped device. And because aesthetics and ease-of-use is a hallmark of the Apple brand, it’s no surprise the company doesn’t want to clutter up an i-anything with an extra port.
That being said, there is the option of using MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link), a connection that allows for charging, syncing and output to an HDTV using a micro-USB port. Unfortunately, as Samsung Galaxy S III users recently discovered, there’s no standard yet for the MHL connection. While every other MHL device has used a five-pin connection, the S III features an 11-pin port that enables simultaneous USB and MHL functionality, as well as provides power for the MHL-HDMI adapter (most adapters need an external power supply). So in order to make their S III content display on a TV, users have to — you guessed it — buy a proprietary adapter.
Perhaps once a standard MHL connection is adopted, Apple will consider this viable option. But there are still other factors that make Apple lean towards proprietary cables.
The mysterious chip inside the new Lightning cable has been the talk of the tech town for the last few weeks. While some believe the chip simply allows the cable to work, no matter how you insert it into the port, others, like the experts over at Chipworks, say it has all the earmarks of a security chip. The prevailing theory is that the chip essentially acts like a key to the locked-down device, ensuring that only authentic, expensive Apple cables will work.
Whatever the case may be, the technology seems meant to thwart those industrious reverse engineers who make cheap knockoff cables and chargers. Naturally, they’ve already managed to crack the chip and will soon flood eBay and Amazon with $5 cables. But is it really worth it to save a few bucks? Maybe not.
Google programmer Ken Shirriff knows a thing or two about electronics. He decided to determine just what lived inside both a cheap Chinese knockoff and a genuine 30-pin Apple charger. According to Shirriff, the knockoff disregarded many UL standards, used cheaper parts, produced more electrical noise that could damage the phone’s touchscreen, and posed a risk of electrical shock to the user. In contrast, the Apple charger used better parts, reduced noise with multiple layers of shielding, and went above and beyond the UL standards to ensure high voltages never reach your phone (or your fingers).
Although the Apple charger was superior in nearly every way, Shirriff estimates all that extra awesome probably only cost about $1 more in components. Even if you add in R&D expenses, it’s still difficult to see how Apple justifies charging $19 for the charger. But at the same time, if an authentic Apple charger is less likely to break, damage your phone or send 340 volts coursing through your body, maybe it’s worth a little price bloat.
On a similar note, Gizmodo recently chatted with Peter Bradstock, owner of Double Helix Cables, who got his hands on some of the first working, knockoff Lightning cables. As with Shirriff’s cheap charger, the counterfeit cable was poorly constructed when compared to the official Apple cable, and included shortcuts like masking tape to hold the connector to the wires. So even though it does indeed charge an iPhone 5, you might want to order extras for when the tape breaks.
But Bradstock also speculates that a future iOS upgrade could change the keycode on authentic cable chips, which could render your entire stock of fake cables useless in the blink of an eye.
It appears that the tight grip on quality control will continue, even with Apple’s authorized MFI (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) accessory partners. During an MFI meeting scheduled for Nov. 7 and 8 in Shenzen, China, it’s rumored that Apple will announce the company will simply not license the interface technology this time around. Instead, Apple will sell assembled Lightning cables and connectors to these approved third-party manufacturers for official i-compatible accessories. It seems likely that controlling the special chip — whatever it does — is a major factor in this decision.
The Root of It All
Let’s face it: Advanced functionality and quality control are important, but nothing justifies Apple’s proprietary cable like the almighty dollar.
A recent report by Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst for KGI Securities, estimates that it will cost Apple around $3.50 for the components inside a Lightning cable. This is a whopping 775% increase over the 40 cents it cost to manufacture the old 30-pin connector. But even factoring in other overhead costs, it still means they’re making a tidy profit when they sell the cable for $19. In fact, Michael Morgan, a senior analyst with ABI Research, told Mashable that Apple will probably generate at least $100 million in revenue over the next year just by selling Lightning cables and chargers. Even for Apple that’s no small potatoes.
What do you think? Should Apple switch to micro-USB? Or is proprietary the way to go? Should more companies switch to a proprietary cable? Let us know in the comments below.
Article written by: Rob Lammle
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Domaina