It’s a story as old as time: Each year, the current year’s crop of new iPhones are months away from unveiling and release, but the rumor mill’s insatiable appetite for news falters feverishly at what’s happening with Next Years new iPhones. Tech is really about futurism.
Apple has yet to announce the iPhone 14, but the buzz of the iPhone 15 is here.
The venerable supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in a note earlier this month that the 2023 iPhone will move to USB-C from Lightning, according to 9to5 Mac. Kuo’s claim was corroborated by top Bloomberg 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 continues with Lightning, he added. And it’s not just the iPhone that’s making the switch — Kuo continued its iPhone 15 first by saying that accessories like AirPods and the MagSafe Battery Pack will also make the switch to USB-C†
The geek set has been clamoring for the iPhone to use USB-C for a while now, so this news feels like it’s been sent from heaven. Their need for change is clear: With iPads and MacBooks with USB-C port(s) on them, moving the iPhone — and satellite devices like AirPods — means Apple’s product lines will have a unified power story. One measly cable can charge a whole host of devices. It’s cool and useful, the geeks say.
It is useful no doubt, but it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.
The long-standing desire for One Cable To Rule Them All comes with a significant but underappreciated drawback: accessibility. While a reasonable desire for convenience (and data transfer) USB-C is a relatively poor solution if you’re a geek (like me) who has sub-optimal fine motor skills. For someone like me, whose cerebral palsy and low vision are a bad combination when doing delicate work like plugging things in, the seemingly mundane task of charging my iPhone is anything but. Essentially, the problem is hand-eye coordination. Think of it as what people in special education circles call a task analysis: You have to use your eyes and your hands to guide the USB-C plug to the port and push it in. You visually locate the port on the theoretical iPhone while simultaneously using your fingers to orient the cable in it. On the other hand, pull out a USB-C cable (or Lightning cable) requires a motor skill and muscle tone that not everyone has. And even if they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean plugging in or unplugging things is okay simple†
That’s exactly the point with this whole “the iPhone needs USB-C” argument – the reality is that it’s far from trivial for someone with a (or multiple) disability to perform these kinds of tasks skillfully. After all, your phone battery only has a finite amount of energy. If it dies and you need your device, you’ll be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
And yes, Lightning has exactly the same motor problems.
In the case of the iPhone, Qi charging doesn’t really solve the problem; it bypasses it. Yes, you could charge your phone then, but the usability issues with the geeks’ beloved USB-C port remain. The problem needs to be addressed and not just tolerated for the sake of convenience or modernity. The real innovation wouldn’t be Apple sticking a USB-C port on the iPhone and agreeing. The company likes to brag about its mechanical engineering prowess, and to paraphrasing Tim Cook, likes to solve these kinds of problems. That’s what they’re best at, he says.
In what’s a really humble proposition, my suggestion for how Apple might fix USB-C inaccessibility is to look to MagSafe. Specifically, MagSafe on the MacBook Pro. TRUE innovation would be to shrink the laptop charging system in such a way that it works on the iPhone. Merging MagSafe with USB-C would be an instant game-changer; the magnets would do the grunt work of alignment, like when you hold the MagSafe charger close to the edge of the computer. Using magnetic force in this way accomplishes two things: it gives the geeks their long-coveted USB-C iPhone and makes it accessible for the least motorized among us. Disabled nerds can have our cake and eat it too.
I’m no industrial designer or engineer, but if USB-C magnetic ports are even remotely feasible, Apple is the only company with the know-how and resources to find out. As for standardization, whether Apple’s magnetized USB-C solution would fit well with the wider industry ecosystem is irrelevant here. If you’re a dedicated iPhone user, and millions of people are, it’s a worthy trade-off to use your own cable to charge your device(s) if the alternative is an inaccessible, friction-filled adventure. Your technological libertarian ideologies need not apply in this context.
The moral of this story, like beauty, is to pine for USB-C for sheer convenience, it only goes deep. Lightning, such as the 30-pin iPod connector from yesteryear, has been with us for almost ten years with the same problems for disabled people. There is nothing philosophically wrong with Apple switching from Lightning to USB-C. The problem lies in the fact that most tech-illuminati fail to see how USB-C can be meaningfully made better and more applicable than crying over consolidation. Not everyone who uses USB-C has impeccable fine motor skills. As I have often thought in this space, the privilege of the disabled is real.
I hope Kuo’s report means there’s more to come than standard USB-C.
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