The problem with Apple’s great leap forward
How important is the cord that plugs into your phone?
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.
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