A Smaller Dock Connector for iDevices? Bring It On!

2012 – Without change, there’s no indication time is passing. The sun rises and sets. The moon changes it phases. Flowers open and close. Some degree of change is inevitable. And some changes we don’t like.

Take the mini firestorm brewing over the 19-pin connector rumored for the next generation iPhone (and undoubtedly the next iPod touch as well). It’s smaller than today’s fairly large dock connector, and it’s completely incompatible with it, so people are up in arms.

“It won’t work with my clock radio.”

“I’ll have to buy a new cable for use in the car.”

“The old connector works just fine!”

iPod and Port History

If Apple thought that way, the iPod would have forever remained a niche product. Think back to October 2001 when Steve Jobs introduced that first 5 GB iPod. It was a Mac-only device that used the Apple-invented FireWire port, which was not only somewhat faster than USB 2.0 (then 18 months old) but also provided more power to charge the iPod’s battery.

FireWire 400 USB 1.1 USB 2.0 FireWire 800 USB 3.0 Thunderbolt
Designed 1995 1998 2000 2002 2008 2011
Rated speed 393.2 Mbps 12 Mbps 480 Mbps 786.4 Mbps 5 Gbps 10 Gbps
Real world1 ≈39 MBps ≈0.85 MBps 34 MBps 85 MBps 254 Mbps 445 MBps2
Max power 1500 mA
12-30 V
7 W
500 mA
5 V
500 mA
5 V
1500 mA
12-30 V
7 W
750 mA 10 W
Traffic Bidirectional Unidirectional Unidirectional Bidirectional Bidirectional Bidirectional
Pins 6 or 4 4 4 9 9 20
Plug size 12 x 4.5 mm
8.45 x 7.8 mm
12 x 4.5 mm
8.45 x 7.8 mm
12 x 4.5 mm 7.4 x 4.5 mm
  1. Most date from Bare Feats, Shootout: USB 3.0 Drives Connected to ‘Early 2012’ MacBook Air versus USB 2, FW, SATA, and TB, June 2012.
  2. 6 Gbps SATA SSD limits performance here.

Apple introduced FireWire with the Blue & White Power Mac G3 in January 1999, and by the time the iPod was released, all Macs had FireWire ports – and none yet had USB 2.0 ports, so it only made sense to use FireWire on the iPod. It could transfer music to the iPod far more quickly than USB 1.1 and charge the battery in a fraction as much time.

Change is inevitable, and the Windows world clamored for the iPod. Perhaps the most popular iPod accessory was an app that let Windows PCs with FireWire ports connect to the iPod, and with the second generation iPod, Apple officially added a Windows version.

USB and FireWire 400 ports

USB ports (left) are slimmer than FireWire 400 ports (right).

Of course, not a lot of Windows PCs had FireWire, but by 2003, they all had USB – and most of them had USB 2.0, which was finally starting to show up in Macs. Rather than give the iPod two different ports, USB and FireWire, Apple developed the dock connector, which could work with either USB or FireWire cables. The third generation iPod introduced the 30-pin dock connector still used today,* although iPods introduced since Late 2005 no longer support FireWire.

30-pin doc connector and lightning* This was published three months before Apple introduced the iPhone 5, 5th generation iPod touch, and 7th generation iPod nano – the first iOS devices to use Apple’s 8-pin Lightning connector. In addition to being much smaller, Lightning is reversible, so it can’t be plugged in the wrong way. But when this article was written, we were not expecting something so elegant. The only drawback to Lightning is that Apple could have used USB 3.0, which is faster and provides more charging power, but Apple stuck with USB 2.0 instead.

Changes Since 2003

While the dock connector is approaching its ninth anniversary, the world had changed. Macs eventually dropped FireWire 400 in favor of FireWire 800, which is faster and has a smaller connector. USB advanced to version 3. And Apple and Intel unleashed Thunderbolt on the world.

Just as all Macs had FireWire in 2003, when the dock connector debuted, all Macs now have Thunderbolt, and the latest generation of MacBooks all have USB 3 ports as well. The 30-pin dock connector is virtually obsolete: The pins that support FireWire have been unnecessary since 2005, when iPods stopped supporting FireWire. And there’s no support at all for the speed and bidirectional nature of USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.

While it’s sad to see Apple abandon something that has become entrenched over nearly a decade of use, it’s time to move forward. So just as Apple abandoned SCSI drives for ATA and then for SATA, its own serial and keyboard ports for USB 1.1 and then 2.0 and now version 3.0, and an external SCSI port for FireWire and later Thunderbolt, it’s time to introduce a new dock connector that will work with today’s Macs and PCs, one that supports the far greater data speeds of USB 3 and Thunderbolt, one that no longer includes unnecessary FireWire pins.

According to the rumor mill, that’s just what Apple is doing. A new 19-pin mini dock connector will be smaller and could be natively compatible with Thunderbolt for exceptional data throughput. (Not that USB 3.0 is a slouch!) And a new dock means the next generation of iDevices could take full advantage of the bidirectional nature of USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt – the technology supports data transfers to and from devices simultaneously, but today’s 30-pin dock connector does not. [Update: Neither does Lightning.]

Yes, it’s a shame that all those “Made for iPhone” docks are going to be obsoleted as a new generation of iPhones, iPods, and iPads comes along, but this is the time to make the switch, while USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt are beginning to take off. Imagine being able to transfer your iTunes library or backing up your iPhone ten times as fast as USB 2.0 allows.

And best of all, USB 3 is backward compatible with the 2.0 specification, so devices with the 19-pin dock connector will be able to work with a decade’s worth of Macs and PCs.

And you can pretty much count on someone developing an adapter that will let that new generation of iDevices work with all those existing “Made for iPhone” boom boxes, clock radios, home stereos, etc.

Change is not only inevitable, it can be a big step forward. And from Apple’s perspective, it’s time to move forward with a dock connector for modern high-speed standards, not stick with one rooted in the slower ports of the past.

Keywords: #dockconnector #firewire #usb #lightning #thunderbolt

Short link: http://goo.gl/g5V71G