Among all the iPhone 8 concepts and daydreams, my favorite scenario has always been to see Apple replacing its proprietary Lightning connector with the USB-C one that’s taken over the entire rest of the smartphone world. Apple is already a strong proponent of USB-C, having moved to it aggressively with the new MacBook Pros in October, but the company also maintains Lightning for its iPhones and iPads — which creates a lot of headaches for people desiring universal accessories that work with everything inside the Cupertino ecosystem.
Alas, after yesterday’s revelation of a new Ultra Accessory Connector (UAC), which is intended to ameliorate some of the pain of having both USB-C and Lightning devices, it looks like the dream of a USB-C iPhone will forever remain just that.
The UAC connector is going to be used as an intermediary in headphone wires, splitting them in half so that the top part can be universal, and the bottom can be either a Lightning, USB-C, USB-A, or a regular old 3.5mm analog plug. The intent is to restore some of the universality of wired headphones — which, until not too long ago, all terminated in a 3.5mm connector (or 6.35mm on non-portable hi-fi models designed for at-home listening). With UAC, a headphone manufacturer can issue multiple cable terminations very cheaply, making both the headphones and any integrated electronics, like a digital-to-analog converter or built-in microphone, compatible across devices with different ports.
Why this matters with regard to the iPhone’s sole remaining port is simple: if Apple was planning to switch its mobile devices to USB-C, it wouldn’t have bothered with creating a Made for iPhone standard for UAC. It would have just made the port change.
Now, even before today, there were a number of valid reasons for Apple to carry on with Lightning. You might not care about the fact that Apple makes money from licensing the technology, but Apple does, and Lightning remains a straightforward way to capitalize on the thriving iPhone accessory ecosystem. The Lightning connector is also a tiny bit smaller than the USB-C one, which might help with keeping device designs as thin and efficient as possible. And most important of all, Apple can exercise tight quality control over Lightning implementations, whereas USB-C is kind of a crapshoot. There’s a lot of invisible incompatibility among USB-C devices, which can be downright lethal for your laptop.
On a related note, some readers have asked why headphone makers don’t just build USB-C cables and throw in Lightning adapter. Well, as much as we may all agree on USB-C being the primary future standard for wired connections, the fact is that USB-C devices are still quite rare. That’s especially true compared to Apple’s more than 900 million Lightning devices already out on the market. As an accessory maker, you want to sell to the market that already exists first, not the one that is to come.
For Apple, moving to a USB-C iPhone would mean a great deal of upheaval for little payoff. The Cupertino company has its eyes set on total wireless freedom, and everything — Lightning, USB-C, UAC — that it’s working with today is just a temporary compromise en route to that goal. So no, a USB-C iPhone was probably never going to happen. But now that we have UAC to ease the switching between Lightning and USB-C music sources, even daydreaming about it seems silly. Instead, I might recommend grabbing a Google Pixel, which can be charged from the same USB-C charger that the MacBook Pro uses.