This morning I made a prediction on Twitter that this year’s new industrial design iPhone will have a USB-C port.1 To my thinking, it makes perfect sense that Apple would do this, and perfect nonsense that Apple would not do this. Let’s look at the timeline.

  • September 2012: Apple ships the iPhone 5 with Lightning.
  • August 2014: USB-C spec is finalized.
  • September 2016: Apple ships the iPhone 7 with no headphone jack.
  • September 2017: Prediction: Apple ships an iPhone with USB-C.

Here are some reasons for my prediction. First, Lightning existed only because USB-C wasn’t finalized. The timeframe at which Apple realized it needed to actively make steps towards ditching the 30-pin connector was likely around 2010, or early 2011 by the absolute latest. USB-C as a finalized spec was nowhere in sight - it had four more years to go. If USB-C as a finalized spec had existed in 2010 or 2011, Lightning would have never been needed. In other words, the one and only reason that Lightning made sense is now gone.

Second, moving to USB-C gets Apple closer to port consolidation and interchangeability. Lightning is exclusive to iOS, which means it’s not that helpful compared to a universal option. Right now, if you buy the newest MacBook Pro and the newest iPhone, you cannot connect the two without buying an adopter. One easy fix for this, without Apple changing from Lightning to USB-C, would be for every new iPhone to come with a Lightning to USB-C cable as well as its current Lightning to USB-A cable. That’s a very specific cable though. It would be more useful and interchangeable if the iPhone came with a USB-C to USB-C cable. The idea is that Apple slowly moves us to a world where everything is USB-C. Your laptop, external monitor, iPhone, and iPad all connect with USB-C. See how simple that is? No Lightning, Thunderbolt, or USB-A. Just USB-C, which is very small and can do everything that those others can do. This is a very Apple-like thing to do. It makes good sense. There’s no reason this can’t be the future, if Apple’s willing to be brave and face the criticism.

Third, if Apple was not planning on moving the iPhone and eventually iPad to USB-C, why would it have made the MacBook and 2016 MacBook Pro use USB-C instead of Lightning? It’s not like Apple’s customer base had tons of USB-C cables in use with preexisting Apple hardware. There would be no compelling reason for Apple’s laptops to use USB-C instead of Lightning unless the iPhone and iPad were eventually going to also move to USB-C.

What about reasons Apple would not want to do this? Let’s look at Gruber’s well thought reasons against it:

If Apple had any plans to switch from Lightning to USB-C, why wouldn’t they have switched last year with the iPhone 7, when they started making tens of millions of pairs of Lightning ear buds?

This is a fair point, but I think there’s explanation. First, the Lightning ear buds come with every iPhone. Every time you buy a new iPhone, you get new ear buds. If 2016’s earbuds were Lightning and 2017’s earbuds are USB-C, it’s not a huge setback from an Apple manufacturing and cost standpoint. From a user standpoint, it’s potentially frustrating that a year-old pair of earbuds would be incompatible with a 2017 iPhone, but that’s only going to bother you if you lose, give away, or break your 2017 earbuds and want to use your 2016 pair. Those things could happen but they’re fringe cases, and Apple doesn’t base its decisions on fringe cases.

This explanation still doesn’t address Gruber’s main question though: why wouldn’t they have switched last year with the iPhone 7? There’s a couple of reasons I can give. First, Apple didn’t want to have to change the industrial design of an iPhone that would otherwise look exactly the same as the iPhone 6S. Better to measure twice and cut once. Don’t force an industrial design change until an iPhone release that actually looks different and justifies the cost of retooling and a new incompatible body. Sure, this would mean there’d be a cost in designing 2016-exclusive earbuds, but that’d be substantially lower than the cost in tweaking the industrial design of the iPhone 7.

Another way of explaining it is this. The industrial design of a new iPhone is set in stone a minimum of 12 months before the release date, according to Gruber. Apple probably works on that new industrial design at least 6 months, probably closer to 12. This means that if Apple had wanted to introduce a USB-C iPhone in 2016, it would have needed to begin exploration of that by early 2015 at the latest. Perhaps even late 2014. The spec for USB-C had barely come out by then. There wasn’t time.

Either because of money or time constraints, or both, it just wasn’t feasible having USB-C in the iPhone 7.

Then there’s this bit:

My expectation has been that iPhones will never switch to USB-C — that Apple would stick with Lightning until they can do away with external ports entirely.

I’m not convinced that a day will come in which iPhones have zero external ports. To me, that makes about as much sense as having no physical power button. It’s technologically possible, but impracticable. There’s a good case to be made for not having more than one button or more than one port, but there’s also a good case for needing that one button and one port. The only universe where it’d make sense to completely remove the ports is a universe where: (1) wireless connectivity protocols have 100% uptime and zero possibility of interference or breakage (2) compiling code to an iPhone wirelessly is just as fast as compiling code with a hardwired connection. Maybe we’ll someday live in that world, but I don’t think it’s coming in the next decade. It’s ok to promote wireless with a fallback of wired, but to exclusively offer wireless is a disservice to developers and people who care about speed and reliability over aesthetic.

Then there’s the argument that the USB-C port is thicker than Lightning. That’s only barely true, and I don’t think it makes a difference. Maybe we’ll get to a point where the thickness of USB-C is actually a determining factor in smartphone thinness, but we’re quite a few millimeters away from that actually being a discussion. Either port would fit just fine in the iPhone 7, and presumably for this year’s iPhone too.

I’m with Federico:

I’m leaning towards USB-C everywhere […]

  1. Predictions are one thing that Twitter is good for, since its timestamps don’t lie. ↩︎