In keeping with recent meteorological themes – iCloud, Thunderbolt – yesterday Apple introduced the new “Lightning” connector for its mobile hardware. This will be the replacement for the venerable 30-pin dock connector introduced 9 years ago. I haven’t seen it in person yet, but here’s some speculation on how it may work.

First, here’s a composite image of the plug and of the new connector (which is, apparently, codenamed “hero”):

You can see that there are 8 pins and that the plug has a metallic tip which, from all accounts, serves as the neutral/return/ground. Since the plug is described as “reversible”, the same 8 pins are present on the other side and, internally to the shell, connected to the same wires. However inside the connector you can clearly see that the mating pins exists on one side only – presumably to reduce the internal height of the connector by a millimeter or two, at the expense of slightly better reliability and a doubled current capacity.

There are locking springs on the side of the connector that mate with the cavities on the plug, hold it in place, and serve as the ground terminal. The ground is connected before the signal pins to protect against static and the rounded metal at the tip (from the photos it seems to be slightly roughened) wipes against the mating pins to remove any dirt or oxide buildup. At the same, the pins on the connector (not on the plug!) are briefly shorted to ground when the plug is inserted or removed, alerting the sensing circuitry to that.

People keep asking why Apple didn’t opt for the micro-USB connector. The answer is simple: that connector isn’t smart enough. It has only 5 pins: +5V, Ground, 2 digital data pins, and a sense pin, so most of the dock connector functions wouldn’t work – only charging and syncing would. Also, the pins are so small that no current plug/connector manufacturer allows the 2A needed for iPad charging. Note that this refers to individual pins; I’ve been told that several devices manage to get around this by some trick or other, but I couldn’t find any standard for doing so.

This takes us back to the sensing circuitry referred to. If one of the pins is reserved for sensing – even if it is the “dumb” sensing type that Apple has used in the previous generation, using resistors to ground – and two pins are mapped directly to the 2 USB data pins [update: I now think such direct support is unlikely] whether the USB side is plugged to a charger or to a computer’s USB port, and the other 5 pins can be used for charging current without overloading any single pin.

This also explains the size (and price) of the Lightning-to-30 pin adapter. It has to demultiplex the new digital signals and generate most of the old 30-pin signals, including audio and serial transmit and receive. The adapter does say “video and iPod Out not supported”; I’m not sure if the latter refers to audio out, though I’m now informed that the latter exports the iPod interface to certain car dashboards.

It’s as yet unknown whether Lightning will, in the future, support the new USB 3.0 spec – the current Lightning to USB cable supports only USB 2.0. This would require 6 (instead of 2) data pins, which is well within the connector’s capabilities. But would the mobile device’s memory, CPU and system bus support the high transfer rate? My guess is, not currently. Time will tell.

Update: deleted the reference to “hero” (I didn’t know it’s designer’s jargon). Also, for completion, I just saw there’s a Lightning to micro-USB adapter for European users, where micro-USB is the standard.

Update#2: good article at Macworld about Lightning. Also, Dan Frakes confirms that Apple says audio input is not included in the 30-pin adapter.

Update#3: found out what “iPod out” means, and fixed the reference.

Update#4: I added to the micro-USB paragraph, above. Thanks to several high-profile references (The Loop, Business Insider, Ars Technica - who also credited my composite picture - and dozens of others), I saw a neat traffic spike here. WP Super Cache held up well. The comments on all those sites are – interesting. :-) Of course whoever is convinced that everything is a sinister conspiracy by Apple won’t convinced by any technical argument, and I want to restrict myself to the engineering aspects.

Update#5: more thoughts (and some corrections) in the follow-up post. Please read that first and then comment over there.