Why Apple Should Go All-In on USB-C

It’s time for Apple to ditch the Lightning connector and switch to something better.

iPhone X with a USB C charger from a Macbook
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Apple.

USB-C was pitched years ago as the one connector to rule them all. Paired with the USB 3.1 standard, it can transfer data quickly, up to 10 gigabits per second. It can deliver a lot of power—up to 100W, which is enough to charge most laptops without a hefty power brick. One of its biggest benefits is its shape: Unlike previous USB designs, USB-C, a thin oval-shaped connector that plugs into the pins in a device’s port, can go in right-side up or upside-down. It’s smaller than a USB-A plug, which is rectangular in shape and must be plugged in right-side up due to the asymmetrical layout of its connector pins.* Most new Android devices use USB-C—including the upcoming Google Pixel 3, according to leaked images. Some Microsoft devices, such as the Surface Go, include the connector as well. Apple used it in place of one of its traditional proprietary chargers on the super slim MacBook in 2015 and later added the MacBook Pro to the club. Slowly, it would seem, hardware makers are coming around to the USB-C way of life, but there’s still one glaring exception: the iPhone.

Apple actually made the switch to an omnidirectional cable in 2012, two years before the USB-C standard was finalized. In 2014, the company abandoned the 30-pin connector it had used to power iPods and iPhones for the previous nine years in favor of the Lightning connector. The Lightning connector was slimmer, more durable, handled more functions, and couldn’t be plugged in the “wrong” way—several features also shared by USB-C. Apple is rumored to have been one of a number of tech companies originally working on the USB-C standard. Impatient with the pace of progress, it opted to go with its own proprietary connector. Six years later, Apple’s iPhones and iPads still charge via Lightning.

It’s time for Apple to make the switch. There are signs the company may embrace the faster charging standard in upcoming handsets. Until now, the opposite end of Lightning chargers— the rectangular plug you likely think of when someone says “USB”—have been your typical USB-A connectors. Leaked photos have made some think Apple may be swapping that out for USB-C instead, a move that would allow faster charging. However, Apple news site 9to5Mac regards the leaked photos with suspicion—they could easily be images from a third-party vendor, not Apple itself.

But that’s small-time USB-C thinking anyway. If Apple completely abandoned its Lightning chargers for USB-C, it could eventually have a unified charging schema throughout its lineup of notebooks, tablets, and smartphones. When iOS and macOS device owners travel, they could pack a single charger for all their devices. Given the company already makes USB-C cables for its notebooks, manufacturing shouldn’t be a challenge—in fact, producing cables at greater volume might even lower their manufacturing cost to Apple.

The addition of Qi wireless charging in the iPhone X seems to indicate that Apple’s focus may lie in the wireless rather than the wired realm. It wouldn’t make sense, the thinking goes, to force iPhone owners to use another set of dongles because it switched charging ports again, particularly if completely wireless devices are on the not-too-distant horizon. But the switch to USB-C would still be worthwhile. There’s already a robust accessory ecosystem available for USB-C, both made by Apple and by third-parties—unlike when Apple made the jump to Lightning. (Those who already own a USB-C–toting MacBook or MacBook Pro would have a leg up.) And realistically, it will be quite a few years until Apple could rely completely on wireless charging and connectivity for the iPhone.

The move to USB-C would have benefits both in unifying and simplifying Apple’s product lines and in unifying the smartphone space as a whole. While it may initially be a hassle for those who’ve accumulated a multitude of Lightning accessories over the years, the switch would be good in the long run by simplifying the masses of cords and accessories we use with our tablets, notebooks, and smartphones and hastening adoption by other hardware makers. It’s high time USB-C fulfilled its destiny. It needs to be mass-adopted before squabbling over the next major connectivity standard comes along.

Correction, Aug. 19, 2018: This story misidentified standard USB-A plugs as USB-B in two instances.