As per usual, rumors surrounding the next iPhone are starting to coalesce into a consistent set of expectations. The latest information comes from the very reliable Guilherme Rambo of 9to5Mac, suggesting that this year’s iPhone 11 will come in two sizes (plus a successor to the iPhone XR), have OLED screens on the top tier devices, keep the same resolution across the entire lineup, add a wide angle camera, improve the selfie camera, have some sort of fancy haptics, and finally: charge via the Lightning connector.
It’s that last part that has irked people in my social media feed — though perhaps that’s because I am somehow embedded in some kind of USB-C enthusiast bubble (Twitter is weird). Still, the sentiment seems to be that sticking with Lightning port on the iPhone 11 is disappointing.
As somebody who has long griped that the iPhone is nearly the only device in my life that doesn’t charge via USB-C, you’d probably expect me to also think Apple should be switching away from Lightning this year. I don’t.
Assuming the rumors are correct, Apple is making the right move by keeping the Lightning connector this year. Any kind of port change is traumatic and annoying, so I can’t blame Apple for wanting to avoid it if at all possible. But that’s not the reason I think it’s the right call.
Keeping Lightning this year is the right move, even though it still bums me out
I think it’s easier to get people to accept port changes when they go along with some other kind of dramatic change to a product line. And not to put too fine a point on it: if the rumors are correct, this year’s iPhone 11 doesn’t look like a very dramatic change.
I think that big changes in product lines can create a context shift in consumers minds. If a company can convince consumers that the gadget with the different plug on it is different, then it makes more sense that it would use a different port. USB on the original iMac is probably the canonical example of using a new device to help explain the necessity for new ports, but I could also point to USB-C on both the 2015 MacBook and the 2018 iPad Pro.
I always wanted the iPhone X to start the USB-C shift. It was a radically new design for Apple, one that purported to be the start of a whole new era of iPhones. It would have been the perfect moment for the company to say “this is the future, and in the future everything uses the same cable until we can get rid of them entirely.” And if consumers weren’t ready to embrace that future, the traditional iPhones were still available and still very good.
Apple decided to stick with Lightning, though, and to me it was a missed opportunity. And it’s no surprise it stuck with them for the iPhone XS the following year.
Apple has been much more cautious about the main port on the iPhone than it has been on the Mac. This is the part where you crack jokes about the “courage” of removing the headphone jack, but it does make me wonder: if Apple was willing to foist that kind of change on users, why doesn’t that courage extend to changing the charging port?
There are lots of reasons, actually. Some of them have already been clearly elucidated by John Gruber back in November, 2018. But basically: the Lightning connector is, in some ways, superior to USB-C. It’s smaller and more tightly controlled by Apple. That second part ensures quality control if you trust Apple and inspires theories about Apple making money through its MFI program if you don’t. Whatever the justification, it’s totally reasonable to keep the Lightning port on the iPhone.
Apple’s MacBook and iPad customers would get fast charging for free if Apple switched the iPhone over to USB-C
...Until it’s not, and I think in 2020 it won’t be reasonable. By then, a critical mass of Apple users will have at least one device (probably their laptop or an iPad Pro) that charges via USB-C.
I’m not predicting that more people will want Apple to switch, but that eventually the benefits of switching to USB-C will outweigh the benefits of staying with Lightning. At some point the Lightning cable will be the thing that feels like an extraneous dongle, one more incompatible thing you have to tote around.
The biggest benefit of switching to USB-C is obviously having the same charger handle your laptop, tablet, and phone. It’s just so much more convenient. In fact, if companies offered me the chance to buy their devices without an AC adapter for even a small discount, I would take them up on it in a heartbeat. It would be better for the environment, too.
And in that world, Apple could get away with shipping the anemic power adapter it continues to pack in with the iPhone — because many of its users will already have a fast charger, likely the one that came with their laptop.
Will it be painful, annoying, and cause a backlash against Apple? Yes, yes, and yes. The change from the 30-pin to Lightning was much more dramatic than any port change on an Android phone ever was. There are so many options in Android that changes like these tend to get lost in the mix anyway. But when Apple makes a change to the iPhone, all hell tends to break loose.
Lightning is increasingly a hassle in 2019. In 2020, it’ll be an embarrassment
If you’re going to let all hell break loose, it had better be worth it. You need a big new narrative to justify the switch. That’s why I think this year’s iPhone 11 isn’t the right phone to do it.
But next year’s iPhone 12 (or whatever it will be called)? Switch, it will be time. Rumors of the 2020 iPhone have already begun, and they include a full-screen fingerprint sensor and the death of the notch. It sounds like a big, exciting new design. It might even be the kind that people would line up for and accept a port change on.
In the meantime, I won’t gripe about 2019’s iPhone 11 using Lightning. It’s a very good connector, just one that shouldn’t wear out its welcome for much longer.
Update July 24th, 9:15AM ET: The original version of this article implied that rumors suggested that the successor to the iPhone XR would have an OLED screen; it is still expected to use LCD screen.