Tuesday, July 17, 2018

USB Type-C is the iPhone charging connector that Steve Jobs would have wanted

There are too many charging and interface cable standards in place. We can fix this, but it will take effort and broad industry buy-in. And Apple would have to fall in line.


I'm mad as hell about USB cables and I'm not gonna take it anymore.

Cables. USB charging and interface cables. It's overwhelming how many of these things we actually still need.

It seems like no matter how much we want to try to do things wirelessly with our mobile devices, it usually is far more expedient -- and often easier and more reliable -- to use the good 'ol cable for juicing up or connecting to many kinds of accessories and devices, such as automobile head units, wall chargers, and battery packs.

Since its introduction in 1996, the Universal Serial Bus has undergone a number of revisions as it relates to data throughput and power transmission capabilities.

The device side connector -- the USB Type-A -- for personal computers and tabletop devices has mostly remained unchanged (and is still backward compatible with current revisions) in the last 23 years, but the mobile device side has changed several times.

In addition to USB Type-A male and female connectors, we've seen the 5-pin USB Micro-B -- the fragile trapezoidal connector -- emerge as the main industry standard for just about every kind of generic handheld gadget during this two-decade run.

But the Micro-B connector was rife with issues, mainly due to its asymmetrical nature which often caused users to break the cable or the device connector accidentally.

Its inability to transmit data at higher speeds and supply power at higher wattages was also an issue in the last ten years as we moved into USB 2.x and recently, 3.x.


Apple, of course, decided to go its own way with USB. First, it used the 30-pin iPod connector for iPhone docking and charging. Then with the release of iPhone 5, it moved to Lightning, in order to accommodate faster data rates and higher wattages for charging.

At the time I applauded this, as it was a significant improvement over both the 30-pin and the Micro-B connector. Although, frankly, anything was an improvement over both the 30-pin and the Micro-B connector.

Lightning was considerably faster than USB Micro-B. It was also far less of a pain when aligning the connector to charge.

It also, seven years since initial release, continues to support fast charging up to 29W on iOS devices using USB PD protocol with the correct combination of USB PD compatible charger block and Apple's proprietary USB PD-to-Lightning cables.

But now we have USB Type-C, which is being adopted by the current generation of Android phones. It has all of the advantages of Lightning with none of the disadvantages.

The ring-shaped connector is considerably more robust than the "tab" or "chad" on the Lightning, and it is bidirectional. If you are using USB Power Delivery (PD) charging it has the same male connector on both ends.

USB 3.1 has a maximum data rate of 10Gbps and can deliver a power output of up to 20V (100W) and 5A using the USB Type-C connector and USB PD. It is effectively future proof as a charging standard for at least the next ten years.

You can't insert it incorrectly, either.

While the Lightning connector is not nearly as fragile as USB Micro-B, it's not particularly resilient. I've found high-quality USB-A to Lightning cables, even the MFI licensed ones from companies like Anker and Belkin, to crap out within months of use, particularly in an automobile where I am using CarPlay.

While charging capability might not be compromised at first, the data connection often is degraded or becomes unreliable. Or you'll get the dreaded "this accessory may be unsupported" error even though with a visual inspection, the cable appears to be undamaged.

The connection on CarPlay is flaky even with the best cables. I don't have this problem with Android Auto and USB Type-C.

And if you want to be able to use USB PD charging capability on a current generation iOS Device, your only real choice is Apple's proprietary and expensive USB Type-C to Lightning cable.

I think most people could live with the idea of the expensive Apple charging cables -- if it weren't for the fact that if you are completely vested in Apple products, you also need USB Type-C to USB Type-C cables for charging (or interfacing your iOS device to) the MacBook.

Which other laptop manufacturers are also beginning to standardize on for charger connectors as well.

It would make a hell of a lot of sense if Apple would just ditch Lightning altogether and go to USB Type-C on iOS devices.

This way, their cords would work with all their chargers. This includes the rumored miniature 18W USB type C charger that is being released and will ship in the box with the next crop of iPhones in September, and also the existing OEM 29W and 61W chargers for iPad Pro and the MacBook Pro, not to mention the 3rd party stuff from Anker, RAVPower, Belkin and all the others.

The cable nightmare that many of us experience today is real. In my case, because I am a both an Android and iOS user, I must carry (at least) six cable types between my go bag and my vehicle at all times:

  • USB Type-A to USB Type-C to hook up Android phones to legacy automobile data ports for Android Auto.
  • USB Type-C to USB Type-C to charge current generation Android phones using USB PD compatible batteries, wall chargers, and 12V car chargers.
  • USB Type-A to Lightning to hook up iOS devices to legacy automobile data ports for CarPlay
  • Apple USB Type-C to Lightning to charge current generation iOS devices using USB PD compatible batteries, wall chargers, and 12V car chargers.
  • USB Type-A to USB Micro-B to charge legacy accessories.
  • USB Type-A to proprietary cable/magnetic connector charger for Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Gear/Android Wear.
  • This is, in a word, bananas. I have managed to personally cut down on the insanity by standardizing on a portable wall charger and a USB PD battery that has both USB Type-C and USB Type-A ports. But it could be better. Much better.


All Apple has to do is change to USB Type-C. If they do that, a whole heck of streamlining of cables and connectors in our industry would take place.

First, we'd only need USB Type-C to USB Type-C cables, for basically everything. We'd only need just a few USB Type-A converter dongles for our cars and legacy devices.

Future versions of CarPlay and Android Auto should both be able to support AirPlay and Chromecast for a bidirectional data connection over Wi-Fi provided the head unit supports it. The bandwidth requirements are not huge.

With this configuration, you would only need the 12V cigarette lighter connector and a cheap USB PD power adapter for charging the device while in the vehicle.

Immediately after Apple standardizing on USB Type-C, the entire accessories and device industry would fall in line. Every Chinese and Korean manufacturer of gadgets would switch over from the crappy Micro-B connector to Type-C. This would happen pretty much overnight.

This would also impact all sorts of IoT and tabletop devices. You know those horrible AC adapter blocks that eat up all your 110V connectors on your power strips? The ones you keep losing and mixing up with all your old junk every time you have to unplug and move them?

The ones sitting in a huge pile in a rat's nest in a box in your closet? Yes, those things. They would quickly disappear. They would exist in our minds in a horrible memory only.

Your next WiFi router would almost certainly use a USB Type-C for power rather than a barrel connector. Your Apple TV, your Roku Premiere, your Alexa, your Google Home, your SONOS speaker, all that stuff would move to USB Type-C.

No drilling huge holes in furniture to snake power or data cables. You could consolidate everything pretty much into an inch-wide hole.

No, your 50-inch television or your 27-inch 4K monitor might still need 110V. So would your wife or girlfriend's hair dryer. But plenty of small appliances could easily make the transition.

Power strips and retrofit wall receptacles could be designed to accommodate mostly Type-C connectors, integrate data hub capability, line conditioning, Ethernet network bridging and also legacy 110V.

It would be a much cleaner solution in terms of cable management and also power standardization.

I also have to look at this from the perspective of what Steve Jobs would likely do in this situation. What would Jobs want for Apple? This was a guy that appreciated -- worshipped --elegance and simplicity. It drove every design decision that he made, above all other things.

Yes, he introduced standards at Apple that often flew in the face of what the rest of the industry did. But this was largely to address functionality shortfalls in standards that the rest of the industry was using.

USB Type-C is the connector Steve Jobs would want. He would want one cable for iPhone, iPad and, MacBook. So you could have one charger. I have absolutely zero doubt about this whatsoever.

Apple needs to be bold. It needs to put Lightning out to pasture and embrace USB Type-C on its device connectors. So we can end this insanity once and for all.




1 comment: