“A modern connector for the next decade.” That’s how Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, described the Lightning connector at its introductory event in 2012. After nearly a decade of the 30-pin Dock connector powering iPods and iPhones, Apple felt it was time for a change. Although you might be correct to claim the Apple kept the Lightning connector around far too long, it’s hard to deny the port’s underlying impact. Looking back on the history of Lightning, it’s clear that the connector was ahead of its time and paved the way for future advancements. It might even live on in future products and connection standards down the road, like the best iPhones.
Lightning’s competition in 2012
We can’t look at the Lightning connector without considering the competition it was facing at the time. The 30-pin Dock connector, introduced in 2003 for the iPod and originally based on FireWire, was a durable but clunky connector in the 2010s. On the third-party side of things, the most common USB connector was USB Micro-B (more commonly known as micro-USB), which was a terrible connector. It wasn’t reversible, was extremely brittle, and could be difficult to insert. Neither Apple nor USB options were cutting in 2012, and a new port was needed.
Although I’d say that the Dock connector was probably better than micro-USB, Apple had a greater need to create a new connector. Micro-USB wasn’t a great connector in terms of functionality, but it was at least compact and looked quite modern. By comparison, the 30-pin Dock connector was gargantuan, and it was holding the iPhone back. With so much space taken up by the Dock connector port on the iPhone, Apple couldn’t pack its smartphone with other quality components. With these needs evident, Apple got to work creating the Lightning connector, and debuted it on the iPhone 5.
Lightning was a great connector in its heyday
Lightning was the first mainstream connector to be reversible, so you could plug it in simply without worrying about orientation. Aside from pin contacts, there wasn’t anything inside the Lightning port that could be broken off. Most importantly, the Lightning connector was ultra-compact, and it freed up much-needed space inside the iPhone. It supported quality charging speeds and USB 2.0, at least at the time. All told, the Lightning connector was far better than either the 30-pin Dock connector or micro-USB, which was all it had to beat. For one, USB-C wouldn’t even exist until 2014, and it wouldn’t start becoming a universal connector until closer to the end of the decade.
The biggest criticism of Lightning, aside from the fact that it is proprietary, is that it was limited to USB 2.0 even after newer tech became available. But as the debut of the USB-C port on the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus shows, that was an intentional choice by Apple and not a technical limitation. In fact, there was a Lightning port released by Apple that featured USB 3.0 data transfer speeds. It was found on the first-generation iPad Pro, which was quickly switched to USB-C soon after, and the USB 3.0 Lightning connector was quickly forgotten.
How the Lightning connector will live on
Lightning doesn’t have a future on new products, but it will live on in the connectors that succeed it. USB-C, which is reversible, was partially created by Apple after it developed the reversible Lightning connector. There’s also the fact that Apple has used its advancements with the Lightning connector to make other products. When the M1 iMac debuted featuring a proprietary magnetic connector that links the computer to an external power supply and an Ethernet port, many assumed it was using power over Ethernet technology. It isn’t, and instead this power connector is using an 8-pin layout reminiscent of Lightning.
That’s two examples of how the Lightning connector has led to innovative technology still in use today, and those are just the few we know of. The technology used to create Lightning has without a doubt facilitated other tech in other products. We might not see Lightning on the best smartphones and accessories, but we will see its impact in the devices used today and in the future. It’s a fitting end for the Lightning connector, which served us well for over a decade.