It’s a tale as old as time: Each and every year, the current year’s crop of new iPhones are still months away from reveal and release, yet the rumor mill’s insatiable appetite for news chomps feverishly on what’s happening with next year’s new iPhones. Tech really is about futurism.
Apple has yet to announce the iPhone 14, but the iPhone 15 hubbub is here.
Venerable supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in a note earlier this month the 2023 iPhone will move to USB-C from Lightning, according to 9to5 Mac. Kuo’s claim was corroborated by Bloomberg ace reporter Mark Gurman—himself a 9to5 Mac alum—who reported Apple is “testing future iPhone models” with a USB-C connector instead of Lightning. The aforementioned iPhone 14 will continue with Lightning, he added. And it’s not only the iPhone that’s making the switch—Kuo followed up on his iPhone 15 scoop by saying accessories like AirPods and the MagSafe Battery Pack will also make the transition to USB-C.
The nerd set has been clamoring for the iPhone to adopt USB-C for some time now, so this news feels like it’s been Heaven-sent. Their want for change is obvious: With iPads and MacBooks having USB-C port(s) on them, moving the iPhone—and satellite devices such as AirPods—means Apple’s product lines will have a unified power story. One meanly cable can charge a litany of devices. It’s cool and convenient, the nerds say.
It is Undoubtedly convenient, but it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.
The prolonged yearning for One Cable To Rule Them All has a significant-yet-undervalued downside: accessibility. However a reasonable desire for convenience (and data transfer), USB-C is a relatively terrible solution if you’re a nerd (like me) who has suboptimal fine-motor skills. For someone like myself, whose cerebral palsy and low vision make for a bad combination in doing delicate work like plugging in stuff, the seemingly mundane task of charging my iPhone is anything but. Essentially, the issue is hand-eye coordination. Think of it as what those in special education circles call a task analysis: you need to use your eyes and your hands to guide the USB-C plug to the port and push it in. You’re visually finding the port on the theoretical iPhone while simultaneously using your fingers to orient the cable into it. On the flip side, pulling out a USB-C (or Lightning) cable requires a level of motor skill and muscle tone that not everybody has. And even if they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean plugging or unplugging things are easy,
That’s exactly the point with this whole “the iPhone needs USB-C” argument—the reality is, it’s far from trivial for someone with a disability (or multiple disabilities) to competently perform this sort of task. Your phone’s battery has only a finite amount of energy, after all. If it dies and you need your device, you’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
And yes, Lightning has the exact same issues motor-wise.
In the iPhone’s case, Qi charging doesn’t actually solve the problem; it sidesteps it. Yes, you could charge your phone then, but the usability problems with the nerds’ beloved USB-C port persists. The problem should be addressed, not merely tolerated for convenience or modernity’s sake. The true innovation would not be for Apple to stick a USB-C port on the iPhone and call it a day. The company loves to boast about its mechanical engineering prowess, and to paraphrase Tim Cook, loves solving these kinds of problems. It’s what they do best, he says.
In what is a truly modest proposal, my suggestion for how Apple could solve USB-C’s inaccessibility is to look to MagSafe. Specifically, MagSafe on the MacBook Pro. True innovation would be miniaturizing the laptop’s charging system such that it works on the iPhone. To fuse MagSafe with USB-C would instantly be a game-changer; the magnets would do the grunt work of alignment, as it does when you hold the MagSafe charger close to the computer’s edge. Harnessing magnetic force in this way accomplishes two things: it gives the nerds their long-lusted-after USB-C iPhone and makes it accessible to the least motor skilled amongst us. Disabled nerds can have our cake and eat it too.
I’m neither an industrial designer nor an engineer, but if magnetic USB-C ports are even remotely feasible, Apple is the one company with the know-how and the resources to figure it out. As for standardization, whether or not Apple’s magnetized USB-C solution would play nicely with the industry’s broader ecosystem, that’s immaterial here. If you are a devout iPhone user, and millions of people are, then being locked into using a proprietary cable to charge your device(s) is a worthy tradeoff if the alternative is an inaccessible adventure filled with friction. Your technological libertarian ideologies need not apply in this context.
The moral of this story is, like beauty, to pine for USB-C for sheer convenience only goes skin deep. Lightning, like the 30-pin iPod connector of yore, has been with us nearly a decade sporting the same problems for disabled people. There’s nothing philosophically wrong with Apple moving away from Lightning to USB-C. The problem lies in how most of the tech illuminati fail to recognize how USB-C could be made meaningfully better and more adoptable than crying about consolidation. Not everyone using USB-C has impeccable fine-motor ability. As I’ve opined many times in this space, abled privilege is real.
I hope Kuo’s report means more is coming than run-of-the-mill USB-C.