Monday, September 17, 2012

Changing the Future

There has been a lot of hubbub recently (at least in the news cycle that I follow) about Apple changing the physical connector on the bottom of their latest generation of iDevices. The old connector, which was unimaginatively called the dock connector (or 30-pin connector, for the number of electrical contacts in the dock), was used to connect Apple's entire product line of mobile devices to power or to computers for syncing. This connector was first introduced in 2003 with Apple's third iteration of the iPod line, and has been featured on every iPod, iPhone and iPad, save for the newest iPod shuffles, shipped in the last 9 years. I have personally owned about 10 of these cables at one point or another, with at least 5 other products or accessories in my apartment having the familiar 30-pin connector built in.

So, when Apple made the executive decision (it probably wasn't executives making this decision by the way) to change to a new 8-pin connector (technically 16, but I'll get into that in a moment), it instantly rendered all of these cables and accessories obsolete. Now, not too many people are surprised by this move, it has been rumoured that they would soon be required to move to a new connector, but with the secrecy involved in design and technical specifications at Apple, nobody was too sure what it would look like or when it would be implemented.

New Lightning to USB cable.
The new connector, dubbed "Lightning" (which accompanies the "Thunderbolt" connector for high data throughput devices like solid-state hard drives and HD monitors) is 80% smaller than the older generation connector, and is also symmetrical, meaning that orientation is irrelevant when inserting the plug. The previous 30-pin paradigm used sets of different pins for the various functions that a given device could be used for with a given accessory. For example, in a device with 30 pins, there are dedicated pins which pass analog audio (regular sound, exactly the same as through headphones) through them, for example in a speaker dock. While this does negate the need for having software to allow the device to communicate with the speakers (this software is called a driver, and it is what you see being installed when you plug an iPod or USB flash drive into your computer before you can use it), it does mean that a lot of pins are redundant for most uses. The beauty of having this connector, as opposed to, say, micro-USB as is the standard elsewhere in the smartphone industry, is that it means that when the device is docked, you can actually control playback of the music with buttons on the device itself, or with a remote that accompanies the device. It also lets the dock display track information on its display, if it wishes to do so. Because of the way micro-USB is structured, with only four pins, you simply cannot do this. This is why you will never see a speaker dock with a micro-USB dock, because it would be technically difficult and needlessly expensive to put software into the speaker system to allow it to read the music files and play them back. These devices simply fall back to the headphone jack to play music, but is very limiting in what you can do, that is essentially just play audio. The Apple ecosystem, though full of more expensive proprietary connectors which need to be licensed from Apple, do far more than a simple micro-USB and analog audio connectors on the systems of competitors.

Realistically, most people only use two pins for charging the device, two more for syncing, and maybe the four pins for analog audio with various controls through speaker docks. In a world where sizes are measured in mm's, every last little bit of space counts, and going down to 8 pins saves a tremendous amount of space, and because the pins are all digital, the software is able to adapt their use to whatever the situation requires. It really is quite a wonderful design.

The new 30-pin to Lightning adapter:
deceptively simple.
Another important point about this connector is that people are saying that the price for these adapters, when they are launched, are laughably high for being such simple pieces of metal and plastic. The adapter from 30-pin to Lightning costs $35 in Canada, and a 20 cm cable which extends a 30-pin connector to Lightning is going for $45. Now, I cannot argue that adding $10 for a 20 cm length of cable isn't extortion, because it truly is, but the design and functionality of the adapter itself is not as simple as just joining up wires and coating it in plastic. Because of the way the Lightning connector is wired, there is no wrong way to plug it in. This is in stark contrast to the typical computer connector, which has a 50% chance of being inserted incorrectly when in a rush. This doesn't seem like a big deal to consumers who are used to it, but for a company who prides itself on things "just work(ing)", simplicity is extremely important. And in the use of these adapters, there are electronics inside which enable this bilateral insertion of the connector, taking the 30-pin connector, which only plugs in one way, to a Lightning connector, which can work either way. I assure you there is far more to this design than meets the eye, though it is designed to look effortless. This is true of all of Apple's adapters, make no mistake that they are of the highest quality, and that they have thought everything through, so you don't have to. And peace of mind is always going to come at a premium.

Last year's iPod nano (bottom view)
New iPod nano, 3.5 mm audio jack is
width of device itself.
Finally, if you take a look at the difference between last years iPod nano (from the bottom; left), and this years (right), the striking difference is in the thickness of the actual electronics. Last years model was designed with the understanding that it couldn't be thinner than the 30-pin connector, and so it was designed to exactly that specification in two of its three dimensions. With the new generation, they have made it substantially thinner, down almost to the size of the Lightning connector in thickness, while making it taller to allow added room for the electronics, so that the volume comes out to about the same. This connector is a very refreshing change, and makes me confident that Apple knows what it is doing, at least for a few more years.

I, for one, am right on board with the change. Anything that can make my life simpler and more efficient is worth investing in, and the caveat that I have get to buy some more new gadgets to play with and review for you guys is just an added bonus!