The Blue Danube. Fragments suspended in air. An iPod speaker dock spontaneously explodes in slow motion, capacitors, speaker drivers and chunks of plastic slowly spinning away from the wreckage. Philips, Sony and Logitech creations, ripped to shreds. Jawbone proclaims: "The dock is dead."
The video is a self-serving jab at rivals, but the wireless audio vendor has a point. Last week, Apple did away with the nine-year-old Dock Connector, replacing the ubiquitous 30-pin jack with a new "Lightning" design. It’s far from the first time Apple has tossed out an old technology in favor of a new one (remember FireWire, and floppy drives?) but Apple’s popularity has grown so much over the last half-decade that a tremendous number of people will be affected this time.
Every iPhone and iPod user who upgrades to a new device will require new cables or adapters, and every company which makes iPhone accessories has an opportunity and a challenge ahead to make that transition as painless as possible. Entire categories of product, like the speaker dock, could go away if they’re too costly to redesign or if consumers feel burnt by the cycle of obsolescence. What does it mean for those manufacturers, and what does it mean for you? We spoke to Apple, Belkin, iHome, Logitech, and a number of Kickstarter founders who rely on the dock connector. Here's what they told us.
The Lightning connector
There’s a lot we still don’t know about the Lightning connector itself, but here’s what we do: it’s about the size of a Micro USB jack, but with eight contacts that live fully exposed on each side of a tiny bar of metal. That's sixteen in total. Because of the symmetrical adaptive design, it doesn’t matter which way you plug it in. The interface doesn't seem to be any faster, because Apple chose to go with USB 2.0 on the other end of the cable for now, but for all we know there could be a USB 3.0 version down the road. Apple tells us that HDMI and VGA cables are on the way, so it’s definitely versatile.
It’s all-digital, which means that devices like the iPhone 5 should be able to send different sorts of signals over the connector with ease, but also means that you’ll need an adapter to get any sort of analog signal — or to use your existing iPhone cables. For instance, the $29 Lightning to 30-pin Adapter will allow you to use an original 30-pin cable to sync, to charge, and it has an embedded DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to provide analog audio out. With the adapter, you should be able to connect a new iPhone or iPod to compatible car stereos for listening to music on the go.
Update: In case you're curious, Chipworks has a teardown of the Lightning connector right here.
Even so, though, that 30-pin adapter won’t pass along video signals or iPod-out, so if you’ve got a vehicle that relies on additional information from the connector, you might be out of luck. Auto manufacturers are telling reporters that even with an adapter, they're not yet sure how much of the existing functionality will work. Though the company believes a number of apps will work just fine, BMW is already hedging its bets: "The PlugIn feature, that enables video playback while stationary and mirrors the Apple interface on the screen will not be available at launch because it uses an analog video signal," said a spokesman.
Perhaps most importantly, though, that adapter is an extra inch (or so) of potential instability between your device and your favorite dock at home.
Rising to the challenge
"People want docks," says Belkin senior design director Oliver Duncan Seil. "I’m convinced of that." The company was one of the very first to build accessories for the iPod in 2003, and Belkin has seemingly never looked back. Though Seil repeatedly praises the "beautiful" design of Lightning and says his company is ready to exploit all the potential benefits, he admits that designing for the new connector is going to be a bit of a challenge. "There's a little bit of uphill that we have to fight now to become completely familiar with the electrical and mechanical characteristics," he says. "Now we have to design devices that can hold onto them properly, and shield them, and all the things that are part of making a reliable device."
That’s a lot more effort than the company typically has to put into each subsequent generation of Apple product, which can sometimes just mean measuring them for new cases, and he says that not all of Belkin’s accessories will necessarily make sense going forward. "The TuneBase, that really relies on the dock connector for stability. If the dock connector is different, that might not work. Those products are going to be redesigned, and you'll see new products that come out that are probably going to be better," he says.
Still, he's sure that Belkin is up to the challenge. "These kinds of stresses are why we're here... it's a boost for the economy. If Apple wasn't changing form factors, business wouldn't occur. These are good stresses for companies like Belkin."
It’s not so easy for the little guy.
The Kickstarter conundrum
On Kickstarter, founders of tiny companies are finding themselves in quite a pickle. The paradox is this: the same early adopters who are mostly likely to drop money on a cool new Kickstarter project are likely to pick up a new iPhone, too. Some Kickstarter founders just paid for an entire production run of accessories using the 30-pin plug, and now some of their customers want a Lightning version instead. Refunds are not an option. On the flip side, founders who just recently got funded might have time to retool, but they can’t make a clean break because many customers will still need the 30-pin version.
"We can't give money back to these people just because there's another product coming out, because there's always something new,"
"We were definitely hit hard."says Noah Dentzel of ChargeCard, which raised $161,898 on Kickstarter just a few weeks ago. He’s happy with the money, and he rather likes the reversible design of the Lightning connector, too, but he says even the early rumors of Apple’s new connector "had a dampening effect" on sales. "We were definitely hit hard," he tells us. "I personally received over 500 messages from people, and they all went like this: ‘I love this product, but I’m waiting to get the iPhone 5,’" he says.
And unlike some of his counterparts, Dentzel can’t even contemplate telling his existing buyers to use Apple’s Lightning to 30-pin adapter for iPhone 5 compatibility. The entire point of the ChargeCard is to have a convenient folding charge cable in your wallet so you’ll never leave it at home. Now, Dentzel will have to produce multiple versions of the ChargeCard at once, and at additional cost, not merely in terms of money but possibly quality as well. "We want to have a third and a fourth and a fifth product, but you can’t unless the first is good." He’s also considering a discount on the Lightning version for early adopters, but he’s not sure. "At the end of the day, it’s not the product’s fault that the iPhone changed the game," he tells us.
Irv Bushnell of Cordlite is in much the same boat. His illuminated charging cable could theoretically work just fine with Apple’s $29 adapter, but it’s not nearly as desirable. "From a business side, we’re kind of stuck with some ‘unplanned’ costs because of our timing," he says. "Not much we can do there except take it, I guess." His company will design a new model for the iPhone 5, but he’s not sure it will arrive in time to make a dent this year.
"Just bite the bullet now, retool for the new connector, and it will pay off." "Because of our smaller budget and limited resources, we probably will not have new iPhone 5 CordLites for the holiday season." The company will also finish producing the 30-pin version "until demand fades," and is also trying to figure out if it can offer to transfer existing backers’ funding towards the Lightning version instead, if they plan to upgrade. He doesn’t harbor any ill will towards Apple, though. "Apple has created a very lucrative market for all accessory makers, and I think we would all agree... Just bite the bullet now, retool for the new connector, and it will pay off," he says.
Laine Scandalis seems worried about timing, too. She’s the industrial designer of the Foundation Dock, a bendy repositionable cradle that can plug into a car charger on the go, or into a shiny aluminum speaker docking station when you’re at home. Because her project hasn’t even finished its Kickstarter funding cycle yet, redesigning for the new connector won’t be a big deal, she says, and in fact the company has already committed to building both iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III versions of the modular cable.
"Will Bose be higher on the supply list?"
"However, when and in what quantities the Lightning Connector will be available to accessory manufacturers like us is anyone's guess. Will Bose be higher on the supply list?" she asks. Since the Foundation Dock isn’t slated to ship till January, there’s still time to find out, but there will be a financial impact: Scandalis says her company will now need to put a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) into the dock to drive its internal speaker.
Scandalis isn’t the only one considering a modular approach to the connector divide. Chris Jorgensen of GameDock says that he’ll be able to simply swap different daughterboards (one with a 30-pin connector, one with a Lightning connector) into different versions of his product.
Originally, he was worried that the GameDock — which turns an iPad or iPhone into a retro recreation of a classic game console — might not be able to send video signals to a television anymore,
Modules on the mindand that could indeed be a problem if you have an iPhone 5 and the first revision of the system. Because Apple’s Lightning to 30-pin adapter doesn’t support video output, you’d need an earlier iOS device to make full use of its features. Once Apple ships Lightning to HDMI cables, though, Jorgensen can add one, along with his new daughterboard (again, at additional cost) for a fully iPhone 5-compatible system.
Dan Salcedo of Everpurse couldn’t be happier with the new connector, partly because his idea was modular from the start. Users will be able to pay an estimated $10-$12 for a Lightning module to replace the 30-pin one. The other reason he’s happy is because the new reversible connector makes the entire idea more valuable. Everpurse promises to let you drop an iPhone into a special purse pocket to charge, and now his customers may not have to worry about which direction that iPhone is facing before they make a drop. "At this point, it won’t affect our production," he says. "The only thing we needed to reassess is the depth of the new connector."
The wireless drive
For many of these promising niche Apple-centric projects, the physical connector is paramount, but for established companies there’s an elephant in the room. Like Jawbone and its exploding speaker docks, some companies see the connector divide as an opportunity to pitch wireless as the definitive connectivity solution. Even Kickstarter has risen to the challenge. The Auris, a $40 Bluetooth receiver module designed to fit on top of your speaker dock’s 30-pin connector, started funding just a week ago, and is already quite close to its $40,000 goal.
Ezra Ashkenazi, president and CEO of accessories giant iHome, isn’t necessarily on board, but wireless is definitely part of his pitch. He says his company is developing a new line of products for the new iPods and iPhone, targeting early 2013, but he specifically recommends iHome’s wireless solutions for iPhone 5 buyers in the meanwhile.
Logitech isn’t coy about its ambitions. "Wireless is the wave of the future," says senior vice president of music Rory Dooley. "Docks happened at a time when Apple had a monopoly market share in MP3 players. When we look at the market today and how people are listening to their music, most are getting it from their smartphone... and that could be Android, too," he says. Since most devices share a common wireless standard in Bluetooth, the company’s been pushing a variety of Bluetooth accessories for maximum compatibility.
"It’s much more about the convenience than necessarily the pureness of that quality."
Dooley doesn’t write off the Lightning connector at all, and says Logitech is "still digesting the information and what it means from a roadmap point of view," but tells us that the company is headed away from docks, period. While he admits that Bluetooth hasn’t always had the most sterling reputation for audio quality, he says that even with advances in encoding, quality isn’t the point. "Bluetooth speakers allow people to take music to the parts of their home where they’ve never taken it before. It’s much more about the convenience than necessarily the pureness of that quality," he says.
Despite how gung-ho he was about the Lightning connector earlier in our conversation, Belkin’s Oliver Duncan Seil agrees that wireless is the future. "I don’t think we’re going to be talking about the dock connector a few years from now," he tells us. But from his perspective, it’s not the future today: "You can make something work with any operating system when you omit wires... but there are efficiency pitfalls and other user experience pitfalls," he says. "As devices are able to do wireless from a battery perspective, a speed perspective, an ease of use perspective, that’s when people are going to adopt it." Seil also says his company is very familiar with NFC, wireless charging, and other technologies that Apple has been hesitant to include.
"When Apple’s ready, we’re going to be ready."