While I doubt speculation that Apple will put a USB port on its next generation iPad, it does beg the question why Apple would even consider such a thing since the existing 30-pin connector—the one that debuted on the iPod and now appears on the iPhone and iPad as well—is by most measures a huge success. Think of the huge third-party eco-system that has been built on this connector—all the car radios, portable sound systems, alarm clocks, and home audio equipment that have built to its specification.
The only possible, reasonable explanation—and this is the real shocker—is that Apple is preparing to abandon the 30-pin connector on its iOS devices starting with the iPad.1 Although it’s inspired by the dubious idea that USB will appear on the next iPad, I strongly believe Apple will abandon the iPod connector sooner rather than later.
Any transition away from this venerable connector is herculean and risky. For the sake of consistency and business leverage, it would be sure to encompass the entire line of iOS products: iPhone and iPod included.
Why Abandon It?
Apple has several motivations to make this transition. The main motivation being the connector’s size. Apple sweats out the details of every millimeter of its mobile hardware mainly to maximize power by maximizing space for the battery. Although the connector doesn’t take up much space, it is telling that the A-end of the connector is a smaller-sized USB plug. This means that the 30-pin connector is more than is absolutely necessary, and that has to gall Apple’s hardware engineers.
Other powerful but secondary motivations include bringing the iPhone (not the iPad) into compliance with European telecom regulations requiring a micro-USB port for charging and using Apple’s products to leverage new technologies into the mainstream (thereby profiting in the process).
When and How It Could Be Replaced
Wireless is the future of data transmission (and has been since the invention of radio). However, for all practical purposes, it is still necessary to charge a device by sending electricity over a wire.2
Respected blogger, Horace Dediu, estimates that Apple will ship 150 million iOS devices next year. Such a big lot of devices has to tantalize the Wi-Fi and WiGig Alliances, which would love to have their successors to Wi-Fi n embedded on those devices. (Perhaps they would even pay Apple for the privilege?)
Unfortunately, those successors are not ready today, and without them, full Wi-Fi sync takes too long.
However, next-generation, wired connection technologies like USB3 are ready today. LightPeak is rumored to be ready and about to debut. (It may use a USB connector, which makes me wonder if iPad’s rumored USB port is actually for LightPeak which perhaps can fall back to USB2 if necessary.) Apple popularized the original USB so there is a certain symmetry if it were to introduce LightPeak.
That would take care of mobile device syncing, but what about integration with audio devices?
Apple is already pushing AirPlay for third-party hardware integration. It has selected BridgeCo’s JukeBlox as the behind-the-scenes technology, and there are already audio devices that have implemented it. This is the death knell for the 30-pin connector.
Because next-generation wireless technologies are not ready today, it is very unlikely that they would begin to appear in Apple devices until 2012—at the earliest. However, that does open the door of opportunity for ready-to-be-implemented, wired technologies like LightPeak (with USB2 backwards compatibility) to start appearing soon—perhaps as early as the iPad 2 or iPhone 5, which are both expected before the end of June. If that happens, that will be another nail in the coffin of the custom iPod connector.
1Some speculate that Apple is adding a USB port to iPad to comply with European environmental regulation that requires all new mobile phones to include a micro-USB port for charging. (This is an attempt to reduce the waste of incompatible charging cables.) However, the iPad is not a phone and is, therefore, not subject to this regulation.
2You can transmit power wirelessly using magnetism, but it has four big shortcomings: added complexity, increased space requirements, transmission inefficiency, and the risk of accidentally destroying magnetically stored data in nearby devices.