Commentary Phones

Sorry USB-C lovers, but iPhone 8 will stick with a Lightning connector

Those rumors about the next iPhone ditching the Lightning connector are most likely untrue or misleading.

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Those hoping that Apple would trade a Lightning connection for a standard USB-C connection on the iPhone 8 will most likely be disappointed: Apple has always had a proprietary connection on its iOS devices and it's not going to change that, in my opinion.

The rumor that Apple might ditch Lightning in favor of USB-C, which is increasingly found on Android phones and computers, got started a couple of days ago when the Wall Street Journal quoted anonymous sources claiming such a move was on deck. (The slightly vague USB-C mention was included as part of a larger story that stated at least one of Apple's next-generation iPhones would include a curved OLED display, in line with earlier iPhone 8 rumors.)

The iPhone 7 Plus' slightly smaller Lightning port (top) vs. the Google Pixel's USB-C port.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To anybody who follows Apple closely -- or has some insight into its general business model -- the possible switch to USB-C seemed farfetched, or at best misleading. Consider the fact there are two ends to every cable: The more likely scenario is that Apple would choose to include a USB-C to Lightning cable with the next iPhone, along with a USB-C wall adapter. (Whether the new cable would be in addition to or in place of standard USB-A to Lightning cable bundled with today's iOS devices is anybody's guess.)

Apple already sells such a cable for $19 here in the US. That USB-C to Lightning cable isn't included with Apple's 12-inch MacBook and the new MacBook Pro laptops, all of which have a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port or ports and no standard USB-A port. (When you're paying north of $1,300 for an Apple laptop it'd be nice if it included a cable to connect your iPhone to it, wouldn't it?)

Apple did not respond to CNET's request for comment on the WSJ story. But within just 48 hours, a more specific narrative on the USB-C/Lightning question emerged from Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst with KGI Securities who has an excellent track record on Apple predictions. As cited by MacRumors, Kuo states:

All three iPhones rumored to be launched in 2017 will retain Lightning connectors with the addition of USB-C Power Delivery for faster charging, including an all-new OLED model with a larger L-shaped battery and updated 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models.

In other words: USB-C is in the mix, but Lightning stays in the picture in a big way.

Close-up of Lightning (left) vs. USB-C connectors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lightning and USB-C, not one over the other

The possibility of Apple killing off Lightning in favor of USB-C offers a vision of a gadget utopia to some: a compatibility dream in which The One True Cable would work with every mobile device, computer, accessory and charger -- now and forevermore.

The fact that Apple standardized USB-C in its new Macs is the idea that first gave the one-cable-fits-all argument some gravity; Apple already has a foot firmly in the USB-C camp.

But sticking with Lightning -- while adding USB-C chargers -- makes much more sense for Apple, across the board:

Licensing Lightning makes Apple big bucks: In backing up his claim that Apple would retain the Lightning connector, Kuo pointed out that Apple would like to "sustain MFi Program [Made For iPhone] licensing income from Lightning accessories." No kidding: You don't have to be a tech analyst or CNET editor to figure out that getting a royalty from every officially licensed Lightning cable, headphone or charging case is part of the Apple equation.

Staying with Lightning avoids a user backlash: Apple has a long history of dropping support for legacy media and connectors: everything from the floppy disk to the optical drive. But Apple's two big 2016 transitions -- dropping the standard headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and moving MacBook laptops from USB-A to USB-C connectors -- led to an unending campaign of #donglelife grumblethreads. And the 2012 move from 30-pin to Lightning was just as painful, as tens of millions of consumers came to terms with the fact that their old accessories and cables wouldn't work with their new iPhones. Sticking with Lightning largely avoids all of that.

Quick charging with Lightning and USB-C is already here. Connect an existing 12.9-inch iPad Pro to the 29-watt USB-C charger that comes with the 12-inch MacBook, and you'll get a much faster charge than with the stock iPad adapter, thanks to its USB 3-compatible Lightning port. An iPhone-optimized version of this, as Kuo suggests, is a total no-brainer.

Apple has already committed its entire mobile and accessory line to Lightning. If Apple was moving to USB-C beyond the Mac, why put Lightning in its two latest high-profile accessories, the BeatsX and AirPods wireless headphones? Why move its Mac mice, trackpads and keyboards to Lightning charging, as it did in 2015? The Apple TV remote recharges via Lightning, too. As do all current iPads, iPhones and even the largely forgotten iPod Touch and iPod Nano. Is Apple really going to undo all of this?

The end game: Wireless everything

In fact, the only current Apple mobile device that doesn't use Lightning is the Apple Watch -- it comes with a magnetic charging adapter. And before this USB-C on the iPhone 8 rumor emerged, all the talk was about the next iPhones having wireless charging capabilities, too.

Personally, I agree with Apple guru John Gruber: the only way Apple moves away from a proprietary connection on its iOS devices is if it removes all wired connections altogether.

Whether we get wireless charging with the iPhone 8 remains to be seen. And a portless iPhone is certainly still a few years away.

But I think you'll see no ports before you see a USB-C port on the iPhone.

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Now Playing: Watch this: Will Apple ditch Lightning for USB-C on the new iPhone?
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