Standards Are Good

In case you have not already heard, let me break the news: this year’s iPhones have a USB-C port where the Lightning port used to be. Aside from the physical attributes of each, the main difference between these ports is that Lightning is a proprietary port specific to Apple devices, while USB-C is an open specification which anybody can use. Or, rather, it is an open set of specifications, and everybody who wants to sell a product in Europe must have a compliant charging port beginning next year. This situation is mostly good today, if a little confusing, and I think it will still be pretty good years in the future.

The main problems with USB-C have been well-documented, here and elsewhere. In short, while USB-C describes the shape of the plug, the indistinguishable cables and ports can each support a vast range of capabilities, from audio adapter mode, through power delivery and USB 2.0 speeds, all the way up to Thunderbolt 5. The plugs look the same, and the cords do not differ in any way other than thickness. This confusion is not exclusive to USB-C: the USB 3 standard was introduced with USB-A ports that looked the same as their USB 2 counterparts, especially in Apple’s implementation; and Lightning has supported USB 3 speeds on some iPad models, but only with some accessories that look very similar to their USB 2-only counterparts. But USB-C takes this mix-and-match approach of capabilities, ports, and cables to an extreme.

The confusion is the bad news. The good news is that I have read seemingly everywhere that most people do not sync their iPhones with a cable any longer. Apparently, there are “wireless” technologies which can do this stuff over the air. The living future is wild. If the only reason you connect your iPhone to a cable is to charge it, I have good news: basically none of this matters and just about any USB-C cable should work fine. I swapped the Lightning cable on my nightstand for a spare USB-A to USB-C cable that came with my keyboard — standards are great. If you, like me, still have an ample supply of USB-A wall adapters and have purchased a non-Apple device in the past five years, you probably have one laying around as well. This is the most any of this is relevant to many people.

But transfer speed matters to me and, well, this is my website. I still sync my iPhone over a wire: I do not trust Apple’s cloud music matching shenanigans and, while I have Wi-Fi syncing enabled, it is dramatically slower than even the miserable cable Apple has been shipping for a long time. I used iPerf to test the Wi-Fi transfer speed between my iMac and my MacBook Pro, and it reported an average of about 100 Mbps. That is a steep downgrade from even USB 2 speeds, never mind USB 3.1 This is important enough to me that it is one of the reasons why I bought the 15 Pro over the standard iPhone 15.

I currently sync around 107 GB of music from my Mac to my iPhone. While the math suggests that should be accomplished in around half an hour at USB 2 speeds, it is not so simple. From previous experience, I know a fresh sync usually takes at least 45 minutes, if not closer to a full hour. Unfortunately, while the iPhone 15 Pro is capable of transfer speeds twenty times faster than its predecessor, the cable in the box is not. However, I have a high-speed cable at my desk already — again, standards are great — so I could take advantage of this. The same fresh sync with my new iPhone took just twelve minutes.

Yeah, this rules.

Okay, so that is not even close to a 20× improvement, and those of you who have Android phones are probably laughing at how long it took for the iPhone to get here. To the latter crowd, I hear you. To the former, I do not think music syncing has ever run at full USB speed ever since it was baked into iTunes. I have no idea why.

Nevertheless, that is a huge improvement, which raises the obvious question: what took so long? If Lightning was capable of USB 3 transfer speeds, why was it limited to a handful of iPad Pro accessories? Why did Apple replace Lightning with USB-C in the iPad in 2018 but retain Lightning in the iPhone, AirPods, and its “Magic” line of Mac accessories? While I do not think it was spite or ego driven, Apple has not provided its own rationale. The closest it ever came to explaining Lightning’s longstanding presence was when it introduced the standard in 2012 — when Phil Schiller said it was a “modern connector for the next decade”. That is less of a defence than it is a commitment and, to be fair to Apple, it exceeded those expectations by one year.

So Apple established an ecosystem with its proprietary connector, and it said it would keep it around for ten years. But that does not preclude improving Lightning, as it did in the iPad Pro. There might be some great reasons why Apple never evolved the iPhone’s connector, but we are only able to speculate. That is also true for keeping a mix of USB-C and Lightning products in its lineup. It could have felt stung by the negative press coverage after the Lightning transition, or maybe it wanted to preserve its ecosystem of first- and third-party products out of stability and perhaps control.2 But we do not know because it has chosen to put its weight behind objecting to the E.U.’s mandated USB-C standard instead of explaining why Lightning is just so darn great.

So let us talk about that.

Apple’s Greg Joswiak, in an interview with Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal last year, said he prefers to understand what governments want to accomplish, but to leave the details to businesses like Apple. I kind of get where he is coming from on this. Joz also cites the E.U.’s previous dedication to standardizing around Micro USB, which likely would have sucked today, and it is not difficult to see a similar problem for the future. If Apple or some other business develops a wired connection which is better for the iPhone than USB-C but incompatible with its spec and plug shape, it will be hamstrung, right?

Not so: it already produces a dizzying array of iPhone SKUs, including region-specific variations: the United States has a version without a physical SIM card, while the version sold in China and Hong Kong supports dual physical SIM cards. In addition, there are two other versions depending on local cellular frequency requirements. When multiplied by colours and capacities, I count 232 individual iPhone 15 and 15 Pro SKUs. If Apple needs to make a special E.U. market version, it already has that capability — and if the rest of the world gets a much better iPhone, you can bet Apple will emphasize that in its marketing. E.U. users will complain to their representatives. It will work out just fine.

This is all speculative, however, and these arguments would be far easier to believe had Apple updated its Lightning implementation on the iPhone since its launch. If it was constantly innovating in port design or speed, sure, I would have more sympathy. But it has not and, so, I do not. Besides, the rumour mill is certain the next major innovation in iPhone ports is no ports at all. Selfishly, I hope that is not the case; see my own experiences above. We can also only speculate about whether the iPhone was due to get USB-C this year regardless of legislation pushed by the E.U., or if Apple would continue to ride the Lightning connector.

What I do know for sure is how much better my iPhone user experience has been out of the gate with this high-speed USB port. Setup was faster, accessories are more universal, it is a more capable product, and I faced no transition problems. Your experience may vary. Mine, though, is much better than it used to be, and it is baffling to consider the non-cynical reasons why it has taken this long to get here.

  1. I am not sure why this is the case, as the router and devices on the same network each report internet speeds of upwards of 200 Mbps, and the router shows it is connected to each of my Macs at somewhere between 500 Mbps and 1 Gbps. Alas, I would rather have a nail through my foot than spend a weekend diagnosing network problems. What matters is how fast Wi-Fi syncing is in the real world — in my real world — not in theory, and wired connections blow it out of the water every time. ↥︎

  2. The press coverage after the USB-C transition has been nothing like it was with Lightning eleven years ago. The most negative article I found was from the Telegraph and, frankly, that barely counts. CNBC went with a headline focusing on the cost of an adapter, Dan Moren, for Macworld, pointed out all the places Lightning still exists in Apple’s lineup, and USA Today published a weird article that places the iPhone’s cost on a timeline of its connector options. Maybe some publication crappier than the Telegraph posted something even click-baitier, but that is basically going to be disreputable by default. ↥︎