Lightning’s Lost Spark

We’re near the one-cable-to-rule-them-all point, but odds are that further battles will emerge from here. Let’s consider the state of port standards in the waning days of Lightning.

By Ernie Smith

In about two weeks, if all goes well, Apple will finally let the final vestige of the proprietary cable fall by the wayside.

The iPhone will finally get USB-C, something it arguably would have had if the USB-C spec had been ready in time for it to ditch the 30-pin cable. It wasn’t, and Apple couldn’t wait. That has created a longstanding mess of proprietary cabling called the Lightning port. We’re finally done with it, it looks like, and it took way too freaking long.

As cabling goes, we’ve come a long way in 50 years. At the start of the personal computing revolution, we had serial ports that looked the same but electrically communicated with computers completely differently, and different brands of computers did not speak the same language. As I explained last year, the game port appeared on numerous devices, but it was only marginally compatible between those devices because it wasn’t really a standard.

Now, we actually think in terms of standards. And as a result, even wildly divergent lines of computers like RISC-V mini-PCs, ARM-based smartphones, and old clunker MacBooks that you take to the Panera, are fully capable of sharing data with one another. Just not with the same cable, thanks to Lightning.


Get an inspiration pick-me-up with Blinkist

Powerful ideas in 15 minutes. Join now and start upleveling your small talk game. Get access to over 5,000 book titles alongside 20 million other readers. Get Your Free Trial Now.

Lightning Cable 30 pin

They need to do another version of this photo with the Lightning cable out of focus next to the 30-pin cable and a USB-C cable in the foreground. (Laineema/Flickr)

To be completely fair to Apple, we needed Lightning at the time they released it, just like we needed the 30-pin cable they developed. At the time of the 30-pin cable, the market was moving away from Apple’s favored Firewire solution in favor of USB. At the time of Lightning, the large size of that 30-pin cable was getting in the way, and Micro-USB was an imperfect connector at best.

But now it’s 2023. Lightning has been around for 11 years, and its standards-unfriendly approach has arguably allowed Apple to trade in other consumer-unfriendly practices. If Apple kept improving or innovating on it, like they have Magsafe, it would make sense to keep it, but it honestly hasn’t. It is dominant in its market and that means it has no reason to innovate. It is Internet Explorer 6, in port form.

Now, to be clear, USB-C has serious problems. Two USB-C cables can work very differently. The implementations of USB-C standards on devices are often extremely piecemeal, meaning that users often don’t know whether they’re getting a good USB-C experience or a mediocre one until they do some testing.

But it also solves some significant problems as well. Even if you’re plugging a laptop into a USB 2.0-capable wall wart, it will, in many cases, still charge … even if very slowly. And USB-C is so common at this point that it can even be used to work around some outdated proprietary ports. (Said Panera clunker is currently relying on a USB-C-to-Magsafe-1 dongle.)

As highlighted by Apple’s production of a dongle for its first-generation Apple Pencil last fall, dongles are often developed as kludges, as strategies to lengthen the life of older devices and accessories. (When they’re not, they either represent explicit attempts to be proprietary or the emergence of a new technology vector.) Odds are, more than a few lightning-to-USB-C dongles will be sold in the coming weeks to keep some ecosystem-locked accessories functional. But in the long run, we’ll be better off.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, in a recent post, argued that a “silent majority” of people will be extremely upset by the demise of Lightning, because it creates inconvenience for them. Perhaps. But on the other hand, nearly every computer released since 2017 has had a USB-C port. Odds are that nearly every one of those customers has at least one spare USB-C cable lying around, possibly ten. Maybe it’s an inconvenience, but it’s a temporary one at best, comparable to a too-short haircut that you’ll grow into.

People get bad haircuts all the time. Eventually, they get used to them.

All that said, odds are that USB-C will not be the final cable in your arsenal, covering everything from power to Ethernet to displays.

We are already seeing restlessness in the outer reaches: After years of work pushing people to USB-C and Thunderbolt, a forgotten older standard, OCuLink, has re-emerged in recent months as a way to plug in external GPUs at a rate faster than Thunderbolt is capable of. It will likely see use for mini PCs and handheld devices like Steam Decks, creating an upgrade path of sorts for them. As the computer begins shrinking, we will likely see a need for solutions like these.

And standards battles are emerging on other fronts. The electric vehicle appears to be nearing a point of landing on a single standard for charging. If we nail down USB-C, the next standards battle will only be around the corner.

Will any of this be perfect? No. We may see later generations lap USB-C. But right now, this is the direction we need to be headed. Any disruption will be a minor bubble in history.

May Lightning be quickly forgotten.

Link Cables

Sometimes things become popular in places where you’d never expect. Hence, why Norwegian cheese is a hit in South Korea.

Ever land on an mIRC-based web server? Well, now you have. (↬ Greg Kennedy)

We’re at the point of the strike where the late-night hosts are starting to emerge from their cocoon, and are about to start a joint podcast. In lieu of new material, let me share this vintage Late Night With Conan O’Brien interview from a characteristically chatty Steven Wright.

Find this one interesting? Share it with a pal!

And need inspiration but lack time? Check out Blinkist for a few ideas.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter