How important is the cord that plugs into your phone?

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman

In the case of the new Lightning connector that plugs into the new iPhone 5 - very important.

When the new iPhone was released last month, media reports focused on the fact the new connector was incompatible with all the previous iPhone models.

What hasn’t been widely reported is why Apple has done it. The new connector is almost guaranteed to reduce choice in the market for third-party peripherals - devices such as speakers or chargers that we plug into our phones - and to line Apple’s pockets with even more cash at the expense of its users.

There’s no doubt the new connector is pretty nifty.

By making it symmetrical, Apple has made it impossible to try to insert it upside down.

It’s a brilliant piece of design that only Apple could conjure up - solving a problem with previous iPhones that people didn’t realise they had.

But it also represents a move on Apple’s part to exert control over anything that’s plugged into your phone.

It’s hard not to believe that Apple looked at the universe of peripherals that their devices have spawned, noted how many they are not extracting licensing revenue from, and decided to craft a solution that would put a stop to it.

The old 30-pin dock connector, with its mixture of analog and digital pins, has been around for more than a decade, and a replacement for it was, at some point, inevitable.

The point to understand is that devices which use the analog inputs and outputs to connect to the iPhone or iPod are anonymous to the Apple device they plugged into.

Which allowed other companies to make a profusion of devices that could be used with your iProduct without Apple’s permission.

Some bore the words “works with iPod” or “works with iPhone” to indicate that they were certified by Apple, at a cost. Others were not.

And for the dumbest of devices - charging cables, simple audio docks, battery packs, USB sync cables - that lack of certification didn’t matter.

The new connector is a very different, all-digital beast.

The phone end of the cable contains an authentication chip, which is responsible for negotiating an initial handshake. This is partly for the purpose of establishing which way the cable is plugged in - which is fair enough - given the symmetrical nature of the connector.

But the digital handshake also means any device connected can be potentially denied access to the phone, by Apple’s software. Although we can’t be sure, it would be a fair guess that the authentication chip contains a device ID, similar to those baked into all USB devices.

If you’ve ever plugged a USB device into a Windows PC, and watched it attempt to install a driver for it, then you’ve seen this process at work.

The difference on the iPhone 5 is that the driver in question is completely under Apple’s control.

Some of this is speculation and it is very early days. (You can rest assured that a few iPhones are being fried in the search for a solution.)

But bottom line is the task of creating a third-party device, right down to the simplest charger, is now fraught without Apple’s sanction and the payment of licensing fees.

The potential certainly exists for unauthorised devices to be blocked by a subsequent operating system update.

In the same way that Apple has complete control over what users can run on their iOS device, the new connector is a means for them to now exert the same complete control over the things that people can plug into them. 

And in the same way that the App Store takes 30c of every dollar spent by users on software, it will, through licensing fees, take more money from them, each time they buy a peripheral.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

Most commented


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    • Bengeck says:

      12:00pm | 09/10/12

      Can we have an anti-trust law suit yet?

    • H B Bear says:

      12:10pm | 09/10/12

      Apple’s corporate conduct - licensing, patent litigation and the walled garden of iTunes reeks of the very worst of Microsoft at its peak. 

      Where is the outrage?

    • andye says:

      01:35pm | 09/10/12

      @H B Bear - Apple is way worse than Microsoft ever was. In fact, the PC is a much more open platform than Apple. For example, you are not allowed to run Apple OS on non-apple hardware, nor are you allowed to virtualise it. Apple control the hardware, they control the software and they control much of the distribution of software, plus they now control the retail market with their own stores. Meanwhile, PCs, hardware and software are produced by a large number of companies.

    • NathanA says:

      02:04pm | 09/10/12

      How is iTunes a “walled garden”? All the music on the store is DRM free, and has been since 2009 (and they started removing it in 2007). You can buy music and play it on any device that supports AAC (pretty much every music player/phone).

      If you’re talking about movies, the restriction is enforced by the agreements with the movie companies.

    • Bruce says:

      04:24pm | 09/10/12

      PC: you can change your own battery and replace it. Apple; you need an Apple technician and you have to pay for the “technicians” time. Apple; masters of built in obsolescence.

    • Mattb says:

      05:27pm | 09/10/12


      dont doubt that for a second, but as far as changing batteries goes, i’ve never needed to with any Nokia phone, iphone, ipad, ipod or any laptop i’ve ever owned. and i’ve owned a few over the past 15 years. What are blokes like you doing to these things that makes them burn through batteries so quickly??

    • Paul says:

      12:15pm | 09/10/12

      I knew there had to be more to it!

      I remember back in the days where you could buy the “Apricot”, an Apple II compatible computer (or “clone” as we used to call them).  Apple shut them down after a legal battle.  I guess nothing has changed.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      12:57pm | 09/10/12

      Legal battle?

      I don’t recall any legal battles. Apple lieanced other manufactures to make clones. Jobs cancelled them when he came back to Apple.

    • Sam de Brito says:

      12:16pm | 09/10/12

      What a hilarious allusion. 20 + million Chinese deaths during the Great Leap Forward. What’s next? Apple’s Holocaust?

    • Steve says:

      12:56pm | 09/10/12

      Hasn’t a sub editor ever given one of your columns a slightly irksome header? So direct your sniffy comments to News.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      12:22pm | 09/10/12

      The fact is they had the change the plug in order to make it thinner.

      Apple are not one to stand still. I remember the outrage when Apple was the first to get rid of the floppy disc drive. I just a matter of time before everything is wireless so all the complaints about the new plug are just people wanting to have something to complain about.

    • Rose says:

      01:01pm | 09/10/12

      You can believe that it’s all about making the plug thinner but there is no doubt in my mind, and the minds of many others, that it’s all about freezing others out of the market.
      I did consider buying an i-phone now that my contract has expired but I have decided to stick with Android phones, as good as the i-phone (many say better) and without the corporate bullying.

    • Craig of North Brisbane says:

      01:04pm | 09/10/12

      How exactly to you propose to transmit electricity for recharging batteries wirelessly, short of using a kite and a thunderstorm?

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      01:22pm | 09/10/12

      @ Rose says: 01:01pm | 09/10/12

      That argument makes no sense as Apple make very little in the way of peripherals.

      @ Craig of North Brisbane says

      There are already products on the market that allow you to charge your phone wirelessly. I don’t know if they work with iPhones as yet. But the technology does existsp.

    • Smurf Silva says:

      02:30pm | 09/10/12

      @ Mr Jordan:
      Apple doesn’t make much in the way of peripherals? Are you kidding? There are pages of the on the Satan Store Website. (Yes, I think Apple is really the right hand of Satan)

    • Brian says:

      02:30pm | 09/10/12

      Craig, it can be done at very close proximity with various magnetic tricks. I doubt that we could do it on a useful scale without a charger plate (yet), unless we went to very wasteful magnets, but it can be done - I have a wireless charger for my wii-motes, for example, which works at ranges of up to about four inches. The rest is simply a matter of scale…

    • Rose says:

      02:35pm | 09/10/12

      They don’t need to make it themselves if they are charging for licensing rights. Fact is that these phones will not work with any of the I-pod docks, chargers etc that are already available and that Apple alone will now control the whole peripheral market for these phones!

    • CJ Johnson says:

      02:49pm | 09/10/12

      The removal of the floppy disc was annoying, sure, but they essentially replaced it with nothing that wasn’t proprietary - USB and CD-ROM.

      This is replacing one proprietary connector with another, only the new one is even MORE locked down. I don’t expect to see “lightning” ports on non-Apple devices now or in the future. So don’t expect any battery cases that use a lightning cable to charge your phone and case without removing one from the other… Hell, don’t expect any cheap power cables or chargers at all.

    • Keith Hammersmith says:

      03:20pm | 09/10/12

      @ smurf Silva, “Yes, I think Apple is really the right hand of Satan”
      funny you say that, just look at the apple logo…  an apple with a bite taken out of it…. a pretty obvious symbol of the devil if I ever saw one

    • Jono says:

      12:25pm | 09/10/12

      Yeah…I’ll just stick with my Android.

    • ando_indo says:

      06:03pm | 09/10/12

      Me too… the trapezoidal shape on my android plug makes it pretty easy not to insert it upside down! Where is the call of ingenuity for that simple and elegant piece of design?

      I think the real reason they changed the plugs was to stop apple tragics clogging up their stores with “Duhhh… I broke the plug”.

    • andrew says:

      12:26pm | 09/10/12

      This is such a trivial issue.

      I’ve been developing for Apple’s devices for over 20 years, and I have my fair share of grievances with the country.  (Its arrogance being one of them.)

      But this is not a news story, or even a current affairs story.

      It’s just a story about Apple, designed to get hits from people who want to talk about Apple.

      If Samsung had some special doodad or thingamajig—and they do—nobody would care.  And you wouldn’t get the hits needed for the advertising slots.

    • Steve says:

      01:00pm | 09/10/12

      You must write a lot of these ripostes mate. Slightly naive view of the world, but do tell ... Why did you read and comment? Another fanboy defending your precious product?

    • Brian says:

      02:48pm | 09/10/12

      A riposte requires a hit in return, Steve… this was more of an attempt at a parry. This may not be a news or current affairs story… but the punch is neither a news nor a current affairs site.

    • Rose says:

      03:26pm | 09/10/12

      Apple is the largest company in the world, but I agree, nothing the world’s largest company did could ever possibly be newsworthy?

    • centurion48 says:

      12:26pm | 09/10/12

      @Hugh: This must be your second ever Apple device if you don’t know that Apple has changed connectors very frequently throughout their entire life. Yes, sometimes it gets annoying but most changes have been improvements in size or function. People remember the changes that don’t improve much or ideas that don’t catch public opinion but, generally, Apple makes quality products with continual improvement. That is what you pay for and that is what you get. In two models time you will look back at a 30-pin connector and think how clunky it was.

    • Don says:

      12:34pm | 09/10/12

      It is ironic that the infamous 1984 ad that apple ran all those years ago now describes them more than their intended target at the time - Microsoft. As for me, I am apple free and loving it.

    • fml says:

      12:35pm | 09/10/12

      Hopefully one day a decent product can beat anti-competitive market practices, marketing and pandering to the technological illiterati-hipsters.

      I would prefer communism to this.

    • subotic calls a spade a shovel says:

      03:06pm | 09/10/12

      I’d prefer a One Party State pretending to be a Two Party State.

      Oh hell… wait…


    • Ironside says:

      12:37pm | 09/10/12

      Microsoft was never this bad, they got sued because they bundled an internet browser with their core software, they didn’t prevent anyone downloading a different browser and installing it, the very function behind windows that led it to be the dominant player in the market was that anyone could write software for it.

      That Apple has not had similar scrutiny should be concerning. Bundling Itunes with the Iphone and preventing users from using competing software on their phone is even worse. To extend this control to what you can plug into your phone is shocking.

      Disclaimer, I own a Samsung galaxy S2 and while I have owned an iphone in the past I never will again.

    • NigelC says:

      12:49pm | 09/10/12

      I also have a Samsung Galaxy S2 and have forwarded all my work calls from my iPod to my Galaxy. The Galaxy is easier to use and is a better quality phone.

    • Richard says:

      12:43pm | 09/10/12

      Link-bait. A very disappointing article.

      1 You don’t have to buy it if you don’t like it.

      2 Is your problem with capitalism, or Apple specifically? Where is the problem with Apple making a profit from innovation? The connector is better. They deserve to be rewarded.

      3 The App Store / iTunes Store break-even. The 30% covers costs. Check the financial reports. Read the analysts reports. Just do your research before implying that there’s a direct profit from the 30%.

      And just reminding me of the “plug a USB device into Windows ...” experience reminds me why I’m happy to reward companies that make my life better.

    • MK says:

      01:11pm | 09/10/12

      Just curious; were you out defending Microsoft when they lost millions of dollars to antitrust lawsuits in the USA and Europe for simply bundling a browser with their operating system?

      Apple is a significant threat to software and hardware innovation. Almost everything they do is much less open than Microsoft at its peak, and yet while Microsoft was crucified, Apple is lauded by its consumerist acolytes.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      01:38pm | 09/10/12

      @ Craig of North Brisbane says

      All true. However, the closed ecosystem has been Apples business model since day one.

      Microsoft however, changed their business model in order to kill off specific completion such as Netspace.

    • d says:

      12:50pm | 09/10/12

      The funny thing is that the rest of the mobile phone market has gont to a standard USB cable for charging and data. This removes the cry from the fanboys that it is apples genious making something better not trying to rip off users..

      All it is is apple ripping off users.

    • Cornflake Girl says:

      01:00pm | 09/10/12

      Wow. Research fail, Punch. This connector was actually developed because the EU forced Apple’s hand.  Years of court cases later, Apple complied.  The big old connector was a pain in the butt to buy when every other smartphone had a connector that was interchangeable with others.

      The new connector is simply a straightforward USB that any can be interchanged for any other of the same size. That’s the whole point of the EU compelling Apple to make the change.

      A point that has flown straight over Punch’s head….

    • andye says:

      02:03pm | 09/10/12

      “The new connector is simply a straightforward USB”

      No it isn’t. It is propriety. You are completely wrong.

    • SimonM says:

      02:11pm | 09/10/12

      I’m struggling to understand what you are talking about here.

      Apple’s Lightning connector is by no means interchangable with any other connector. It is completely proprietary.

      In order to comply with the “2009 Common External Power Supply” standard in Europe, Apple sells a microUSB-to-Lightning adaptor there.

      I think that it is in fact YOU who needs to do more research…...

    • Greg says:

      02:24pm | 09/10/12

      No it isn’t

      All the other smart phones use mini usb because they all agreed to in order to make it easier for the consumer.

      Apple use a propitiatory connector and always have, making it harder for the consumer

    • Brian says:

      02:35pm | 09/10/12

      Ah, no. The new connector is not a USB. At least, not at the phone end of the cord. One of the most common complaints being raised is that Apple ~didn’t~ use the easily available micro-usb that everyone else is…

    • AdamC says:

      01:00pm | 09/10/12

      As a non-techie, erstwhile Apple user, hasn’t end-to-end control always been part of Apple’s corporate philosophy? That is to say, haven’t Apple always wanted Apple customers to use Apple hardware, Appple software, Apple peripherals, Apple sales channels, etc? How is this new?

      Also, there are lots of good commercial reasons to try to control and, by extention, monetise access to your platforms. Apple is not under any sort of obligation to assist third-party product developers and manufacturers to profit from its intellectual property and customer base. Why is it unreasonable for Apple to seek to preserve value in its business?

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      01:17pm | 09/10/12

      No they don’t.

      You use they hardware, they operating system and that’s about it. You can use any software and hardware that is compatible with Apple.

      What makes Apples works so well is that by them controlling the initial hardware, ie the computer, and the OS, they can control what how other pieces of software and hardware work with their ecosystem. As apple can certify software and hardware garenteeing that its compatiable with the ecosystem. Meaning you don’t get incompatibility problems etc that you get with PC’s.

      The problem with PC’s is there are a dogs breakfast. In that Malone can create software and hardware and there is no garentee that it will be compatible with other peeves of software and hardware from other manufactures.

    • TheRealDave says:

      02:12pm | 09/10/12

      Which is why you can run about 15-20% of the software available across the entire PC world on the Apple PC platform.

      But not that it won’t stop Apple from charging near twice as much wink

      Tetris is awesome….

    • Greg says:

      02:28pm | 09/10/12

      It’s the exact opposite and the same thing with android phones, because Apple is so controlled there is no one innovating and moving them forwards you get what apple want you to have when apple want you to have it.

      Because PC’s are so open anyone can create and develop which is exactly the reason why windows computers have always been ahead and why android phones have rapidly gone past the iphone.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      02:42pm | 09/10/12

      @ TheRealDave says: 02:12pm | 09/10/12

      Twice as much?

      The last OS cost about $20 compared to Windows which is several hundred. Plus, GarageBand, iMovie, iPhoto are all free. And even their pro-software is only a few hundred.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      02:50pm | 09/10/12

      Greg says: 02:28pm | 09/10/12

      If that is true why is everybody copying Apples iPhone and iPad? Why did no one come put with these products before Apple?

      Phone apps for example didn’t really exist as we now know them before Apple.

    • CJ Johnson says:

      03:01pm | 09/10/12

      @Mr. Jordan

      You mean 20 dollars to UPGRADE. For which you have to have a Mac that is capable of running the thing, the cheapest of which is over a thousand dollars?

      For an extra hundred, I can get a version of windows that I can install on pretty much everything from my 300 dollar netbook to my 3000 dollar gaming rig.

      And yes, Garage band and iPhoto what have you is nice. But the reason their “pro” software is lacking is because, well… Remember when Final Cut Pro X launched, significantly cheaper, but lacking support for the kinds of video and formats that warrant spending hundreds of dollars on editing software? No support for multi cameras, no support for RED hardware, no ability to import old FCP files…

    • Keith Hammersmith says:

      03:25pm | 09/10/12

      @MR Jordan, “If that is true why is everybody copying Apples iPhone and iPad? Why did no one come put with these products before Apple? “

      you really believe that? apple didnt invent any of these things, they may have improved the “packaging’  but tablets and smart phones were not an apple idea.

    • stevem says:

      03:26pm | 09/10/12

      Mr. Jordon, not true. I had a Windows CE mobile in 2005. This had applications just like the iPhone does. Each developer sold the applications themselves, just as they do in the PC marketplace.

      It was Apple that leveraged the popularity of the iPod into the iPhone and made life simple for the masses by taking total control of all apps and creating the App Store.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      03:31pm | 09/10/12

      @ CJ Johnson says: 03:01pm | 09/10/12

      You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t believe you.

      Native editing4 support for:

      H.264 from GoPro and iFrame cameras.
      H.264 from DSLR cameras.
      Broadcast Wave Format.
      Panasonic AVC-Intra, including AVC-Intra 100 and AVC-Intra 50.
      Sony IMX, XDCAM HD, XDCAM HD422, and XDCAM EX.
      JVC-created XDCAM EX.
      Canon XF MPEG-2; ingest supported with additional software.
      AVCHD, including Panasonic AVCCAM and Sony NXCAM.
      Uncompressed 8- and 10-bit SD and HD.
      Apple Intermediate Codec.
      Still images including PSD, BMP, GIF, RAW, JPEG, PNG, TGA, and TIFF.
      Compressed audio including AAC, AIFF, BWF, CAF, MP3, MP4, and WAV.
      XML import and export for collaboration with third-party finishing tools and media asset management systems.

      Multicam editing with automatic sync and support for mixed formats, mixed frame rates, and up to 64 camera angles.

      Oh an it now supports RED cameras.

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      04:10pm | 09/10/12

      Keith Hammersmith says: 03:25pm | 09/10/12

      Apple coined the term PDA in 1993 when it released its first table computer the Newton which they started developing in 1987. And as far as I know it was the first table computer every released.

      It was killed off by Jobs and then they started development of the IPod with was Mac only for the first several years.

    • nihonin says:

      01:32pm | 09/10/12

      I’m still waiting for the iApple Pie to be released.  nom nom nom

    • Bitten says:

      03:52pm | 09/10/12

      Stop nomming, it’s making me hungry for a sugar rush…

    • John says:

      01:58pm | 09/10/12

      Apple Products are for those who seek enslavement, Google Products are for those who seek to be spied upon and Microsoft products are for those who want to hold someone’s hand and get fleeced at the same time.

    • KH says:

      02:13pm | 09/10/12

      Interesting - I didn’t know about the chip in the connector, but I can still understand why they do it - Apples philosophy has always been the ‘walled garden’ approach since Jobs returned to the company.  They tried the clone experiment, and some of the clones were substandard, so they pulled the pin on it.  Peripherals could use wi fi or bluetooth to get around the connector issue, and as long as the computer itself will accept any printer, scanner or hard drive I like, Im not that fussed about the phone and ipod.  If they start messing with my computer setup, they are dropped.

    • Cameron says:

      03:00pm | 09/10/12

      Nokia Lumia all the way!

    • LuckyCountry says:

      04:19pm | 09/10/12

      I’m on my second iphone, first a 3gs now a 4s. This will probably be my last iphone. Android devices are now equal in quality & reliability, with much greater choice. Some people may be rusted onto apple, but it’s just another techno junk company like all the others, especially now Jesus is dead.

    • Mattb says:

      05:38pm | 09/10/12

      All i know is that I wish when I bought my first iPod back in 2004, the old brick sized model with the click wheel and the four buttons above it, that I was smart enough to buy shares in the company as well. I think they were around $12-$14 dollars a share in early 04, maybe cheaper. What are they now?? around $650 a share?. hindsight is a nasty thing..

    • Retailer says:

      05:53pm | 09/10/12

      I’m really not sure anybody else has done the sync thing as well as apple. I get reminders for things I have to do from my iMac at work, my old iPhone, my laptop and the home iMac so I don’t have to think too hard. Thats what Apple is all about, getting on with life in an easy manner without thinking too hard about how it all works! That is the difference and I wonder why we are all talking about a little plug!


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