Why Apple won’t ditch Lightning for USB-C in the next iPhone

Apple has a history of abandoning older technologies for new standards, but don’t count on that this year

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Speculation about Apple's plans for its next iPhone, due out this fall, has been building in the last few weeks, with attention focused on everything from the prospect of wireless charging to OLED displays and now, the possibility Apple might dump the phone's Lightning connector for USB-C.

That last prospect was highlighted this week by the Wall Street Journal, which also predicted Apple would source OLED screens for the new iPhone from Samsung.

While Apple might well be planning to introduce OLED displays, eliminating the Lightning connector and replacing it with USB-C won't happen. Here's my thinking.

How Apple operates

The decisions Apple makes when designing new products are always scrutinized, which means when it comes to aesthetics and technologies, there is always something to nitpick. As Apple moves to minimize appearance and ornamentation -- the result of its ongoing focus on mobility in smaller, lighter, and thinner devices -- traditional features get the axe. Most recently, with the arrival of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus last year, Apple did away with the traditional headphone jack -- moving that feature to the Lightning port and causing consternation among Apple users.

Over the years, the variety of physical connections available on Apple products has dwindled, meaning that the ports and connections that remain must, by default, take on new duties. This is especially true for Apple's laptops, which over the years have lost a variety of ports, including everything from Ethernet to USB 1.0, SD card slots and Apple-specific power ports like Mag-Safe.

In Apple's latest laptops, the MacBook and MacBook Pro, they've all been replaced by USB-C ports -- a move that last year prompted an outcry from Mac users annoyed that they would need new cables and dongles to connect older hardware. (At least the newest laptops still have the traditional headphone jack. Yay?)

With Apple's clear interest in USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, it's no surprise that speculation would arise that the company might turn to it for the upcoming iPhone. USB-C, as implemented in Apple's hardware, is versatile, provides power to the laptop, allows for fast data transfer speeds for external storage drives and can even drive multiple monitors.

Despite the Wall Street Journal report, I'm willing to bet a lot of money that the next generation iPhone (as well as any new iPads and iPod touch devices rolled out this year) will retain the now-traditional Lightning connection.

Why Lighting isn't going away

There are a variety of reasons I believe this, chief among them: compatibility with existing products and Lightning's relatively recent arrival as a replacement for the old 30-pin connector.

But the main reason is simple; It's about keeping control and making money.

Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs once said: "I've always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do." While CEO Tim Cook hasn't always followed the path set by his predecessor, who died in 2011, in this case control does play an integral role in what Apple will do.

As of the iPhone 7 series, released last September, the Lightning connection is the only way to physically plug in another device to the phone. Do you really believe that Apple will give up control over the single existing physical connection to its most popular device -- especially when Apple holds all of the access keys to said connection?

The Lightning connector is proprietary for Apple. It brings in good money via licensing fees, since if you need to physically connect to an i-Device, you have no choice but to use Lightning. Apple execs aren't going to walk away from that advantage. Lightning is also relatively new -- it's only been around since 2012. And having largely moved third-party manufacturers to it Apple isn't about to force them to move to USB-C. Doing so would mean giving up control and cost the company money at the same time. (I'm not the only one to push back on the Journal report.

Now, that doesn't mean Apple won't give the wall adapter for the next iPhone the USB-C treatment, which means devices would ship with a USB-C-to-Lightning cord like the one the MacBook Pro uses now. But the iPhone (and iPad and iPod touch) will keep the Lightning port.

You can make an argument for a straight USB-C connection on an iPhone or iPad -- standardization across Apple's devices stands out, for instance. But the advantages of retaining full control over the only physical connection on Apple's best-selling and most profitable piece of hardware outweighs any such move this year or for the foreseeable future.

Your Lightning-based iPhone accessories and cables are safe. Apple will not cede its role as gatekeeper to a gold mine.

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