Apple is supposedly mulling its biggest feature-ditching move yet – the removal of the Lightning port. More accurately, rumours are rife from sources with strong track records, such as Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, that Apple is considering producing a truly wireless smartphone. But, we’ve been here before.
Everyone remembers the saga of the headphone jack. As rumours began to ramp up about Apple ditching the audio port, there was a raft of think pieces dissecting the decision. The iPhone X and iPhone XR launched – and the port was absent.
What followed was almost all of the phone industry following suit, many after mocking Apple’s decision initially – such as Samsung. We then got a sense of déjà vu last year when Apple decided to ditch the charger from the iPhone 12 box. Manufacturers, like Xiaomi, once again mocked then followed suit.
So, why are we here once again? A portless iPhone 13 (or later) would combine the teething issues of both the removal of the headphones jack and charging brick with an additional irritant sprinkled on top for good measure.
The environmental impact of a portless iPhone can’t be ignored. During the iPhone 12 launch, Apple was keen to stress the positive environmental benefits of removing the charger from the box. Despite this, the decision would lead to many hunting out USB-C chargers anyway, a charger type that Apple had only sold with its phone for one generation. And, more importantly, pushing users towards an inefficient technology – wireless charging.
Eric Ravenscraft of Debugger found in his testing that wireless charging used around 47 per cent more power than wired charging for the same amount of power. That’s bad. Apple already pushed users closer to this technology with its introduction of MagSafe, but the removal of a wired charging option would take this much, much further.
Some arguments in favour of wireless charging assert the benefits of being able to rely on a more durable and long-lasting charging station over less durable and more frequently replaced cables. Making these cables uses energy too, of course, so it’s only fair to take this into account. However, given plenty of wireless charging solutions – including Apple’s MagSafe – continue to use the same old cables to provide power to the wireless chargers themselves, we don’t seem to be free of cables just yet.
While you have to consider the potential benefits of certain accessories no longer needing to be produced if you have a wireless charger to last you years, there’s also the immediate impact on accessories that use the Lightning port to consider.
Apple-owned Beats produces its own Lightning wired headphones in the form of the UrBeats3, while Apple included Lightning buds in the box for three years, ahead of the iPhone 12 ditching the charger and headphones. Remove the Lightning port and these will become obsolete alongside existing Lightning charging cables, charging docks, Lightning to HDMI adapters and more.
In 2020, Apple said removing the Lightning port from the iPhone would “create an unprecedented amount of electronic waste” when arguing against European Parliament deliberations on requiring a universal port across mobile devices.
Unsurprisingly, Apple didn’t see fit to make public its weighing up the pros and cons of ditching the charging brick and the introduction of MagSafe when it came to the iPhone 12 launch – instead, sticking to the pros. Should Apple make this move for a future device then added transparency would be welcome – absent of that, advanced notice to manufacturers of Lightning compatible devices would also go some way to reducing potential waste.
Ever had an issue where your iPhone needed to be connected to a desktop PC or Mac to give it a full reset in recovery mode? Anyone who has had to deal with this will know it isn’t the most elegant solution and that it also requires you to plug your iPhone into the system. Without a port, this becomes something that you likely won’t be able to do at home.
Apple has long been under fire for how it handles third-party repairs of its devices, eventually opting to declare some as Apple-certified so you aren’t forced to always go to an Apple Store. Should the port disappear, there may be no other way for your phone to be reset in recovery mode than for it to be taken to an Apple-certified store. Would early adopters using a portless iPhone relish having to go to Apple direct not only for hardware repairs but major software issues, too?
A portless iPhone does feel somewhat inevitable, with Jon Prosser claiming Apple will dip its toes in the water with one iPhone 13 model dropping the Lightning port, while renowned Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has also stated the change is coming eventually.
However, it didn’t have to be this way. There have long been hopes of a USB-C port coming to the iPhone. It wasn’t that long ago that a USB-C on an iPad seemed like a pipe dream then it did eventually arrive on the iPad Pro and the latest iPad Air.
With USB-C being the port of choice for the majority of Android phones, tablets and many laptops now (including MacBooks), what better way to reduce Apple’s impact on the environment than enabling a mass of USB-C charging and accessories to work with its flagship phone – rather than require the purchasing of anything new. Unfortunately, as Kuo argues, this now seems unlikely and a jump to portless is the likely next move.
Admittedly, many features – such as data transfer and listening to audio – can now be done wirelessly, whether it’s over the internet or via Bluetooth. However, the recovery-mode issue remains as well as the inability to use a range of dongles that offer display and other file-transfer capabilities.
An interesting solution could be right under our noses. The Apple Smart Connector is present on the latest iPad Air and iPad Pro – offering the ability to transfer data and power in a less space-hogging way while also maintaining water and dust resistance.
But the introduction of MagSafe would seem to pour cold water on this suggestion, as both solutions being present wouldn’t match Apple’s traditionally streamlined approach.
Unfortunately, nudging consumers to become more accustomed to file transfers via iCloud, connecting to displays via AirPlay and traipsing to the Apple store for a hard reset do seem far more Apple.
Adam Speight is a product writer at WIRED. He tweets from @_adamspeight
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