Apple's latest iPhones: USB-C ya later, for now

Commentary: CNET editor Dong Ngo laments the lack of support for USB-C in Apple's new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
5 min read
Watch this: USB-C and Thunderbolt 3: One port to rule them all

A few hours before the Apple event, I made a bet with a coworker: I think this new iPhone is going to have USB-C instead of Lightning.

Well, you know how that turned out.

And I get it. There are plenty of reasons why Apple is sticking with its proprietary connector. It allows the company to have more control over its devices and make more money via licensing. (Apple makes money for each third-party MFi-certified -- "made for iDevice" -- cable and accessory is sold.) USB-C compatibility issues also have been plaguing the mobile industry for the past many months. And Apple already caused a wave of outrage as it transitioned from the old iPod-era 30-pin connector to the Lightning standard when the iPhone 5 debuted back in 2012.

So, OK, a USB-C iPhone will probably never happen.

But here's why I think Apple should move to USB-C, anyway.

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USB-C is a big step forward from Micro-USB.

When Apple first debuted the Lightning connector 4 years ago I didn't mind it much, though I wished Apple had opted for the then popular Micro-USB instead. After all, Lightning then used the same USB 2.0 standard and shared the same speed. But at least the Lightning connector was much easier to use. Compared to that now ancient-looking 30-pin connector, Lightning was far smaller. And the unlike Micro-USB, it was reversible -- you could plug it into the phone upside down.

Later on, when USB 3.0 became more popular, the Micro-USB 3.0 connector was introduced. While it was backwards compatible with narrower Micro-USB connectors, the 3.0 version was just way so big, ugly and inconvenient to plug in that very few smartphones adopted it. (By the way, you can read more about USB connectors here.) The Galaxy Note 3 was about the only known handset that did.

And so, I was fine with Lightning all the way to the iPhone 6S.

But now, we have USB-C, an unified connector type that has the same physical size as Lighting, its cable can be plugged in however way you want, can do everything a Lightning connector does and more, and has been adopted by most, if not all, other vendors. It only makes sense that Apple should use it for its latest phones.

Apple already uses USB-C on its MacBook.

Enlarge Image

This Apple Macbook has a USB-C port, so why not the iPhone?

Sarah Tew/CNET

That's right, Apple is the one of the first companies that brought USB-C to laptops and it did so in an extreme manner: the 12-inch Macbook which first debuted in 2015 has no other connector than that single USB-C port used for both charging as well as connecting devices to the computer. (OK, not totally true: the other port on that MacBook is, ironically, a 3.5mm headphone jack -- now gone from the new iPhones.)

While some grumbled about the single port (a breakout dongle adds other legacy jacks and the ability to charge while using other peripherals), the MacBook's USB-C port was a forward-looking feature that even allows for bidirectional power. That means you can also charge the Macbook from a connected USB-C device (in addition to, say, providing power to a phone or other peripheral).

It's also rumored that new Mac models expected later this year will be getting USB-C. And that means for now, and near future, you will need an adapter to connect your new iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus to some of the Macs.

Isn't that ironic?

Better for users

Whenever I pack for a trip, I need to carry at least three type of cables. Lightning cables to charge my iPhone and my iPad, USB-C cables to use with my external hard drive, and Thunderbolt cables so that I can connect a display to my Macbook Pro. Yet more often than not, I still find myself short on cables.

I was ecstatic to learn that starting with Thunderbolt 3, Intel has opted for USB-C connector, allowing all Thunderbolt 3 port to work as a USB-C port and all USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 cables to work interchangeably. Now if the new iPhones also used USB-C connector, I'd just need to carry a few USB-C cables and I'm game.

Most importantly, ain't you tired of adapters, already! Those extra little easy-to-lose, always-misplaced things that you need to carry along or clutter your desk with. Going USB-C is the only way to get rid of them once and for all.

The idea of one port to rule them all is also great in case of emergency. You won't need to fumble with the cables before you can charge your device. You may not even need to bum a cable from a friend and when you do, they'd definitely have the one you need, because they'd all be the same..

So if the new iPhones had USB-C, cable anxiety would soon be no more.

Josh Miller/CNET

Better for environment

Let's face it. The new iPhones will almost certainly sell in the tens of millions, headphone jack blowback or not. And that means millions and millions of Lightning cables, Lightning-to-audio adapters, Lightning headphones and third-party accessories. Eventually, all of them will become e-waste, filling up our landfills.

You can argue that if the new phones supported USB-C, we'd still need the cables and adapters (USB-C-to-audio) anyway. That's true. But in this case, the cables and adapters can be used interchangeably with other USB-C devices. You wouldn't need two sets of cables and accessories, one for Apple devices and another for non-Apple devices. And you can keep the cables (and accessories) longer because you can always make use of them with future USB-C devices, which are only going to multiply in 2017 and beyond.

Apple has been big on claiming itself an environmentally conscientious company. Then why doesn't it use the universal connector standard that helps cut down waste and the use of natural recourses?

The USB-C dream

When announcing the iPhone 7, Apple's Phil Schiller said that it takes "courage" to remove the headphone jack. Don't fool yourself! Removing the jack, but keeping the Lightning connection, revealed Apple's intention to go completely proprietary, to have more control, and ultimately to make more money. Remember that MFi certification mentioned earlier? Apple gets a cut of literally anything you plug into the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus (so long as it's a legit accessory). Sounds less like courage to me, and more like greed.

But going proprietary can also lead to the downfall of a company. This is partly why Sony -- once the biggest name in electronics -- is much less relevant than it was a decade or two ago. You remember: when it would keep trying to convince you that you needed to re-buy that same movie or song on a MiniDisc and a UMD (and maybe a memory stick), after you already had it on a CD or DVD.

I could be wrong, though. Maybe Tim Cook has decided to save USB-C for the 2017 iPhone.

But next time, I won't bet on it.