The Remarkable Life Of The Dock Connector

Eight years and hundreds of millions of devices later, Apple’s weird, flat, ubiquitous plug is heading to the great tangled cord drawer in the sky.

The oldest piece of tech I use is a cable. I’m fairly sure it came with my roommate’s now-dead 4th generation iPod, the glowing blue click wheel one, which he would have bought in 2004, when Bush was in his first term and computer nerds were still excited about the Pentium 4. The only other eight-year-old gadget I have — a DVD player with a three-disc carousel — is sitting in a closet. I doubt it still powers up. The cable, though, snaps into the base of my iPhone 4S without a fight. It charges like new.

The iPhone dock connector has been a remarkably persistent standard in an industry defined by a lack of persistent standards, and kept alive by a company known for flaunting them. The first dock connector appeared in the 2003 iPod — before that, iPods used Firewire — and has been there ever since, in almost every iPod, every iPhone, and every iPad.

Since 2004, when Apple switched the dock connector’s power rail from Firewire to USB, it hasn’t changed much — a few of its 30 pins have assigned or reassigned new jobs, like video transfer, but a cable from 2004 can still charge and sync a device sold today, at the very least. The biggest change has been feel: the early dock connector had a mechanical locking system to prevent the plug from slipping out, which gave it a satisfying CLICK. The last few generations of dock connector operate more smoothly, but the action is still unique: less resistant than a USB port, yet more mechanical.

Every big gadget company has tried a proprietary port at some point, but nearly all have given up. They’ve since congregated around the same standard — and in Europe, legally mandated — MicroUSB port for charging and syncing. MicroUSB ports are almost apologetically small, and placed on smartphones as if as an afterthought, often on the side or top, near the headphone jack. Sometimes they even get a small plastic flap, ostensibly for protection from dust but, spiritually, I think, as a human-like expression of modesty. Ports, mechanical or otherwise, are unseemly.

Apple’s port, on the other hand, dominates half of the bottom face of the iPhone, a lone, gaping reminder that this otherwise seamless device is still just a messy bundle of copper, steel, plastic and wires. A peek into an iPhone or iPod’s dock connector is the easiest way to guess its age — dust and scum accumulates gradually, like floating trash in the phone design’s only eddy. In form, the cable harks back to Apple’s long-passed white plastic era, and can almost look out of place strung between a brushed aluminum MacBook and a black glass iPhone. (Apple’s once-total white aesthetic lives mainly in wire form, in sync cables, laptop chargers, and earbuds.)

Now, finally, this is going to change. The iPhone 5 will have much smaller dock connector, called Lightning, that will fully break compatibility for the first time in eight years. The dock connector as we know it is on deathwatch.

This is not a small change. Today is the day that hundreds of millions of docks, chargers, and adapters purchased since 2004 cease to function with new Apple products. My Logitech speaker dock (2008) and generic car charger (2010) won’t work with the next iPhone. The young i-thing accessory industry is going to have to start from scratch for the first time in its short history.

It’s pointless to wonder if Apple’s dock connector stubbornness has paid off for the company, whose gear would have been successful no matter how its plugs were shaped. But it has paid off for the dozens of companies that exists solely to sell Apple accessories. This no-longer-nascent industry did an estimated $3 billion in sales last year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an iPhone, iPod or iPad user who hasn’t purchased something from it: a speaker with a dock connection, a case with a dock connector cutout, a drawerful of chargers.

Joe Tan, Chief Design Officer at accessory company Incase, has been designing around the 30-pin connector since the beginning. About a decade ago, in fact, his company was contacted to design a case for a yet-to-be-announced “potential device” that eventually became the iPod. He likens the 30-pin docking standard to a platform: “Sometimes it isn’t so smart to build such a closed environment, but it turned out that now, especially since Apple is so big, they can command being unique and proprietary.” Staying proprietary is something Apple is good at, he says. Just look at the App Store.

“It’s inevitable for us to think about [a new dock],” says Tan, “that it has to change at some point. Devices are getting smaller and smaller, and when you look at some of the components, at some point you can’t go any further.”

For accessory companies, even a design-forward case-centric house like Incase, the redesign will be a mixed bag. At least the companies are used to change: “There’s a reset button almost every year, or couple of years, with form changes, with configuration changes, with minor changes.” Dealing with a change in the dock connector would be a lot like dealing with a major change in the iPhone’s shape, which has happened twice in five years. And despite its physical consistency, there have subtle changes in what docking hardware can do, and in what devices need from it — some older docks aren’t powerful enough to charge new iPhones, for example. They’ve coped with change before, and they’ll cope again.

Markus Diebel, Incase’s VP of Design, actually looks forward to the change. “There are [already] various openings on an iPhone case,” he says, “the smaller it gets, the better it is for us — the case will be stronger, with smaller holes.” It will be harder for the companies that sell more directly dock-based products, such as Kensington or Belkin, who’ll have to license Apple’s new connection standard, but they’ll be fine too — if anything, they’ll probably sell more gear as customers realize their old accessories don’t work with new Apple products. We’ll be absorbing this one, guys.

So when it comes time to replace that fraying old cable, I will. But I’m not sure how much it’ll even matter. My iPhone syncs wirelessly and backs up to the cloud. I play music in my house using Airplay and have a Bluetooth speaker for the road. In its old age, my dock connector has been demoted to a mere power port. Apple’s next dock connector, whatever it looks like, may be its last.

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