The iPhone 5 launched in the US nearly a month ago, but to date, not a single Lightning dock accessory has been released. Even if you are willing to buy a new speaker dock, charging stand, car connection kit, etc., you won’t be able to for at least a few more weeks.
Apple famously abandoned its long-running 30-pin dock connector with the most recent generation of iPhones and iPods, justifying it as necessary for a new generation of thin, light, flexible devices. The 30-pin connector debuted nine years ago with the third-generation iPod—when there was just one model which came with a belt clip, because it wasn’t even possible to fit it into a pocket. As far as standards go, the dock connector did everything right: it was easy to physically manufacture, popular enough to attract gadget makers, and convenient enough to become second nature to everyone who used it. Anyone who wanted to be part of the iPod cash machine could jump in, and incredibly useful accessories such as voice recorders, alarm clocks, DJ consoles and home theatre docks appeared alongside silly ones like pocket fans. Apple, of course, charged unhealthy amounts for its cables and docks, but cheaper alternatives were available pretty much from the start. At its core, the dock connector was just an ordinary plug in a proprietary shape, which simply allowed the iPod (and its later variations, besides the iPhone and iPad) to exchange power and data with anything else.
The new Lightning plug and socket
The Lighting connector is a whole new ballgame. Sure, it’s smaller and more robust, and it can be inserted into a socket either way. But it’s not just an ordinary plug that lets wires from outside make contact with wires inside. Each plug on a Lightning cable and each connector on a dock is actually a little device in itself, with a couple of controller chips that can be made to allow or disallow arbitrary connections. Accessories must first identify themselves to the new iPhone, and then wait for the iPhone to decide what sort of data, if any, should be able to pass through. Whereas the 30-pin dock connector had dedicated paths for analogue audio and video in addition to digital data, the new 8-pin Lightning connector is digital only. Accessories (even cables and adaptors) will need to contain the circuitry required to convert that data stream into a useful audio or video feed—presumably once they have been identified and authorised to do so.
This changes all sorts of dynamics for Apple, accessory makers and end users. First of all, the cost of implementing these chips in every cable and dock rules out any incentive to experiment with cheap, fun accessories. Second, Apple’s decision to control supplies of these chips will restrict the market to those who are willing to buy them on Apple’s terms. Third, end users have fewer choices, especially when it comes to the cost. At the moment, customers are harmed the most, since they’re forced to pay $29 (approx Rs 1,560) per device for a simple adapter the size of a small biscuit.
No one begrudges Apple the decision to miniaturise and iterate on an old design. We’ve all experienced the frustration of buying new peripherals for a new computer, or investing in a new camera only to discover that our old memory cards are useless. Simple things could have been done to ease the transition, such as designing around a common standard such as microUSB, maintaining some basic compatibility with the old connector, or just throwing one free adapter in with every purchase—hardly a problem for one of the world’s most profitable companies with a loyal (even fanatical) user base which has purchased hundreds of millions of 30-pin devices. It’s quite clear that miniaturisation was not Apple’s sole priority with this design move.
Each of these will cost more than Rs 1,500
As it stands right now, you’re out of luck even if you want to just charge your phone at the office or at a friend’s house. Unless you want to spend a lot of money, be prepared to carry your USB cable with you everywhere you go. The way Apple has decided to defy all common convention and create such a tightly-controlled standard hurts everyone, including Apple itself. Added to all of this, there’s a shortage of Lightning adapters in most markets. Even if Lightning becomes so common that your friends and colleagues have their cables at hand for you to borrow, it will take years to become as common as 30-pin was, and that’s reason enough for people to seriously consider whether upgrading to an iPhone 5 will actually make their lives more difficult.