Apple’s Lightning Connector Is Getting Old, but It May Never See a Successor

No more cables

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s Lightning connector is ten years old this year.
  • It was amazing at launch, but now USB-C is better in almost every way.
  • The iPhone may do away with plug-and-socket connectors altogether.
Two smartphones charging side-by-side; one with usb, one with Apple's lightning

Steve Johnson / Unsplash

Apple’s Lightning connector has been around for almost ten years but shows no signs of being replaced on the iPhone, AirPods, and even Apple’s keyboards and trackpads. It’ll have to go eventually, but what will take its place? The answer is another question: "Maybe nothing?"

The Lightning connector replaced Apple’s 30-pin dock connector, itself around for 11 years, and still sometimes seen in the wild, peeking from the top panels of budget-hotel alarm clock radios. Device by device, Apple has been replacing its proprietary Lightning ports with USB-C, but it's still holding steadfast on the iPhone.

"Lightning connectors were good because they were faster and smaller than the 30-pin dock connector [that] was prevalent at the time. They also brought with them reversible heads, which made the whole charging process quicker," IT support engineer Samuel James told Lifewire via email.

Why Is Lightning So Great?

Compared to USB-C, Lightning’s advantages aren’t so obvious, but when it was introduced in 2012, it was a revelation. First, it was way smaller than the huge dock connector. It could also be inserted in any orientation, unlike regular USB-A, micro, or mini, which required at least three tries to get into the hole.

Lightning connectors were good because they were faster and smaller than the 30-pin dock connector...

Lightning is also extremely robust. There are no moving parts, nor any bits that stick out. None of its edges are sharp, so it's less scratchy, even less than USB-C, when you miss the port. As a charging standard and as a basic data-transfer plug, it's perfect.

Lightning is also great for Apple because it's a proprietary connector. Through its Made for iPhone (MFi) program, Apple decides what accessories can connect to its devices via licensing. That gives Apple two things it loves: control and money.

But Lightning is far from perfect.

Lightning Strikes

Lightning is under fire, if you will, from European regulators. Europe wants all mobile devices to use the USB-C connector, which isn't a bad idea. The argument against this is that it "stifles innovation," as if innovation, like "delivering shareholder value," is some kind of moral imperative outside the puny realms of law, environmental protection, and human rights.

And it's not like the Lightning connector is even that great anymore. Most of its advantages are shared by USB-C, and USB-C wins almost everywhere else. Lightning is only USB2, for example, which is why backups and data transfers over the wire are so slow. It's also limited in the amount of power it can deliver compared to USB-C, although Apple has still made the iPhone charge pretty fast.

"USB-C is superior in just about every specification. It allows significantly faster transfer speeds, significantly higher wattage and current delivery, and significantly vaster compatibility. It even supports the new USB 4 standard," technology and home robotics expert Patrick Sinclair told Lifewire via email.

Apple could clearly switch the iPhone over at any time—like it has with almost all iPad models, Macs, and even its charging bricks. It could even adopt the USB-C plug and add some extra functionality in the name of "innovation." It's not like the USB-C/Thunderbolt spec is a model of functional clarity anyway.

Apple product listings for USB-C to Lightning and Lightning to USB cables

Apple

But there are two other things holding back Apple’s switch from Lightning to USB-C on the iPhone and AirPods.

One is that if Apple switched connectors as the EU wants, pretty much everyone would blame Apple and say that it only wants to sell more cables and chargers. This also shows the downside of the EU’s otherwise noble plan: Long-term iPhone users probably have a good collection of chargers and cables around the home and workplace, and all of those would end up as landfill, despite being usable for years to come.

But Apple may never switch to a new plug and socket. It might ditch sockets altogether.

Enter MagSafe

MagSafe might become the default way to charge an iPhone. No EU troubles, and perhaps even more importantly, no more holes in the iPhone’s body to catch lint or seal against water and dust.

That doesn’t take care of data transfer, but one might argue that any wireless connection, like Apple’s own AirDrop, is already way faster than USB2. And the iPads are already on their journey to USB-C.

Lightning really is an excellent connector, but it’s showing its age and may never see a successor. And that’s fine. It did its job, and the rest of the industry caught up, then surpassed it with USB-C.

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