Why Apple Couldn’t Go to Micro USB Charging

No feature of the new iPhone 5 has come in for as much criticism as Apple’s decision to drop the venerable 30-pin iPod connector in favor of a new, reversible 8-pin plug called Lightning.

Some people, especially those with a lot of iPod/iPhone/iPad accessories were understandably upset that they have suddenly been rendered obsolete. Photo of Lightning connectorThe $29 price for a Lightning-to-30-pin adapter doesn’t help, although that cost will undoubtedly come down as soon as third-party accessory makers bring theirs to market. The problem is that the nearly decade-0ld 30-pin was obsolete and too big, and was becoming a real design issue for Apple.

A more serious question is why Apple did not go to the micro USB connector that is supposed to be a standard in the phone industry. While the decision is surely due in part to Apple’s sense of esthetics and in part to Apple’s desire to control the accessory market through licensing of the proprietary Lightning connector, there was a truly compelling reason: The iPad.

Here’s the problem: The micro USB pins are very small, and the power-carrying connectors, pins 1 and 5, are rated to carry 1.8 amps at 5 volts DC. That means that the maximum charging power that can safely flow across the connector is 9 watts. But the iPad wants 10 watts to charge. It will charge on as little as 5 watts, the output of most USB 3 ports and the specially modified USB 2 ports on newer Apple products, but needs 10 watts for fastest charging.

Depending on the circuitry involved, there’s some danger that attempting to charge a USB iPad, if such a thing existed, would cause the connector to overheat. But the more likely result would be a 10% slowdown in the iPad’s charging rate, an especially unfortunate outcome on the already slow-charging third-generation device.

Apple has promised a micro USB-to-Lightning connector to comply with European Commission regulatory requirements. But I bet it will generate a warning regarding iPad use when the next generation of Lightning-equipped iPads appears.

What Do iPhone 5 Critics Want?

iPhone 5 photoApple’s announcement of the iPhone 5 has unleashed a remarkable wailing and gnashing of teeth in the tech media (for example): Apple has failed to hit us with shock and awe. Apple has become the new Microsoft, resting on its laurels and letting its platform petrify. Apple can’t innovate anymore.

Most of this nonsense seems to be the work of jaded writers who simply don’t have a whole lot to say. What almost all of this criticism fails to do is tell us what the new iPhone ought to have been other than something different from what it is. The complaints seem to boil down to “Apple failed to wow us in some way we didn’t expect.” But as I and many others have pointed out, the smartphone market is maturing fast and changes that add value, rather than changes made for their own sake, are getting harder to come by.

Some writers complained that Apple failed to overhaul the user interface. This is true, but what is the argument for changing what remains, five years after it first challenged the limits of BlackBerry and Palm and the horrors of Windows Mobile, an exceptionally intuitive and elegant design. Apple has been very careful in evolving the iOS interface. But it hasn’t been static. For example, it solved the problem of modal notifications in iOs 5. Should it add live tiles? Of course, this would require a completely new UI. And if the best argument for live tiles is Windows Phone, that platform’s failure so far to make any headway is not much of a case for the appeal of that approach.

Apple has been roundly criticized for failure to incorporate NFC. But as my colleague Ben Bajarin points out, NFC is a mostly solution in search of a problem. Especially in the U.S., there has been little movement by retailers to install the infrastructure needed to support NFC,

The new iPhone screen size has been the subject of rather odd criticism, since the company is accused of imitating Android by going to a larger display when the particular display size it chose is unique. Apple deliberately avoided the sort of mega-screen that had graced recent high-end Android phones, going instead for a screen that is taller than the current iPhone but the same width. One reason Apple avoided a wider display is to maintain the ability to operated the iPhone one-handed, especially for people—like many women—with smaller hands.

I can’t explain just why but the new phone feels very good in hand. It’s actually only a bit lighter than the iPhone 4, but the difference seems more significant, perhaps because the long, relatively narrow design, makes it better balanced. The differences are subtle, but the new aluminum back and precision-machined sides just feel right.

Of course, there are two major changes in the new model. One, which no one is criticizing, is the addition of high-speed LTE wireless. The other is the replacement of the venerable 30-pin dock connector with a new design, dubbed Lightning. (Dan Frakes at Macworld has an excellent rundown on Lightning’s capabilities and deficiencies.)

Lightning has inspired the collective ire of tech writers. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, for example, calls it “incredibly irksome.” It’s unfortunate that it orphans nearly a decade worth of cables and accessories based on the 30-pin design, and even more so that Apple plans to charge $30 for a Lightning to 30-pin adapter (I expect cheaper third-party versions are not very far away.)

On the other hand, the 30-pin’s time was up. The connector, always a rather fiddly bit, just claimed too much precious device real estate. Manjoo and others criticize Apple for not using the standardized micro-USB connector, and this objection has some merit. But Lightning has distinct advantages over micro-USB. It’s sturdier and reversible. I found I could easily insert it with my eyes closed on the first try, something difficult if not impossible to do with micro-USB.

Probably the oddest complaint is that Apple no longer surprises us a product announcement. First, this isn’t really true. Although all the salient features of the new iPhone were known before the Sept. 12 unveiling, both the details of the new iPod touch and the existence of a redesigned iPod nano were not known in advance. The lack of secrecy about the iPhone, though, is now inevitable. By scheduling the announcement just 10 days before it expects to ship millions of phones, Apple has to deploy a vast supply chain on a scale that makes its former secrecy impossible.

I know that in my decades as a journalist, I never complained about my success in finding out things that the people I was covering didn’t want me to know about. Hearing people other than Apple executives complain the secrets were found out suggests that some writers don’t have enough real work to do.