Why Does the iPhone Still Use Lightning?

Chaim Gartenberg, writing for The Verge, “The Lightning Port Isn’t About Convenience; It’s About Control”:

Notably absent from Apple’s argument, though, is the fact that cutting out a Lightning port on an iPhone wouldn’t just create more e-waste (if you buy Apple’s logic) or inconvenience its customers. It also means that Apple would lose out on the revenue it makes from every Lightning cable and accessory that works with the iPhone, Apple-made or not — along with the control it has over what kinds of hardware does (or doesn’t) get to exist for the iPhone and which companies get to make them.

Apple’s MFi program means that if you want to plug anything into an iPhone, be it charger or adapter or accessory, you have to go through Apple. And Apple takes a cut of every one of those devices, too.

Gartenberg summarizes a commonly-held theory here: that Apple is sticking with its proprietary Lightning port on iPhones because they profit from MFi peripherals. That it’s a money grab.

I don’t think this is the case at all. Apple is happy to keep the money it earns from MFi, of course. And they’re glad to have control over all iPhone peripherals. But I don’t think there’s serious money in that. It’s loose-change-under-the-couch-cushion revenue by Apple’s astonishingly high standards. How many normal people do you know who ever buy anything that plugs into a Lightning port other than a USB cable? And Apple doesn’t make more money selling their own (admittedly overpriced) Lightning cables to iPhone owners than they do selling their own (also overpriced) USB-C cables to iPad Pro and MacBook owners.

My theory is that Apple carefully weighs the pros and cons for each port on each device it makes, and chooses the technologies for those ports that it thinks makes for the best product for the most people. “What makes sense for the goals of this product that we will ship in three years? And then the subsequent models for the years after that?” Those are the questions Apple product designers ask.

The sub-head on Gartenberg’s piece is “The iPhone doesn’t have USB-C for a reason”. Putting that in the singular does not do justice to the complexity of such decisions. There are numerous reasons that the iPhones 13 still use Lightning — and there are numerous reasons why switching to USB-C would make sense. The pro-USB-C crowd, to me, often comes across as ideological. I’m not accusing Gartenberg of this — though it is his piece with the sub-head claiming there’s “a” singular reason — but many iPhones-should-definitely-use-USB-C proponents argue as though there are no good reasons for the iPhone to continue using Lightning. That’s nonsense.

To be clear, I’m neither pro-Lightning nor pro-USB-C. I see the trade-offs. If the iPhones 13 had switched to USB-C, I wouldn’t have complained. But I didn’t complain about them not switching, either. You’ll note that in none of my reviews of iPad models that have switched from Lightning to USB-C in recent years have I complained about the switch. Apple, to my eyes, has been managing this well. But, if the iPhones 13 had switched to USB-C, you know who would have complained? Hundreds of millions of existing iPhone users who have no interest in replacing the Lightning cables and docks they already own.

When Lightning replaced the old 30-pin iPod connector, starting with the iPhone 5 in 2012, many — I’d say most — existing iPhone users were not happy about it. Many were downright angry. It didn’t matter that the old 30-pin adapter was, compared to Lightning, hideously ungainly, far too large, and technically outdated. (Also, I believe the 30-pin port was impossible or nearly-impossible to make waterproof. The first waterproof models were the iPhones 7 in 2016.) People do not like buying new cables, no matter if they’re “better”. Now, I know what you, someone reading Daring Fireball, might be thinking — I own dozens of USB-C cables already — because you own other products, perhaps several from Apple itself, that do use USB-C. But that’s not true for most iPhone owners around the world. They have Lightning chargers in their kitchens, cars, purses, backpacks, and bedrooms. All things considered, they do not want to replace any of them, let alone all of them.

In 15 generations of iPhones, Apple has changed the connector once. And that one time was a clear win in every single regard. Changing from Lightning to USB-C is not so clearly an upgrade at all. It’s a sidestep. Note too that when Apple first started changing iPads — starting with the iPad Pro in late 2018 — from Lightning to USB-C, they didn’t say it was because USB-C is better, period, and certainly not solely for the reason that USB-C is “open”. They said it was to enable iPads Pro to do things that theretofore only PCs and Macs could do, like connecting to external displays. iPhones aren’t meant for that. Or at least aren’t meant for that yet — if ever they are, iPhone peripheral capabilities, including hardware ports, will change.

If you’re on team “Lightning is nothing but a money grab”, you should explain why, for inductive (a.k.a. wireless) charging, iPhones have supported industry-standard Qi from day one. Or why iPads have been steadily moving from Lightning to USB-C. Or why Apple was the first laptop maker to go all-in on USB-C, literally making a laptop with no ports other than a single USB-C port and a headphone jack.

Speaking of headphone jacks, my theory is the same with those. Apple’s not “against” headphone jacks. They’ve begun steadily removing them from new products only when they deem doing so the best trade-off. The new iPad Mini has no headphone jack; the new regular iPad that debuted alongside it does. That’s not ideal, but it’s not incoherent. They are different products for different users with different needs and different priorities. These decisions require nuance. “Apple’s just trying to force everyone to buy $160 AirPods” is not a nuanced argument. Is it a consideration that removing the headphone jack from more products each year might steer more customers toward their first AirPods purchase? Sure. But it’s not like there aren’t other brands of wireless headphones.

To say that there’s a reason that the iPhones 13 still use Lightning, any singular reason, is facile.