Thunderbolt vs. the Standard 30 Pin iOS Connector

There’s a lot of speculation that a change in the iPad 3 and iPhone 5 connector may change.

The 30 pin iDevice connector has been around for a long time. Back in the day, when the iPod was originally released, Apple introduced it with the original 30 pin connector. Apple has on occasion since the original introduction of the connector and cable made tweaks to it. The connector has spawned the introduction and revision of many different accessories. Its created an industry all of its own.

With the introduction of Thunderbolt, a PCI Express related connector, there’s been a great deal of speculation that Apple would move all iDevices to it, beginning with iPad 3 and iPhone 5. There are some pluses and minuses to this, speculative change. Let’s take a quick look and see what they may be.

10 Plus Years at 30 Pins Can’t be Wrong
Apple’s love affair with their 30 pin connector goes back to the original release of their iPod music player. Back in the day, Apple’s 30 pin connector was Firewire only. It wasn’t until the 3rd generation iPod that USB support was built in, and then it was sync only support. It wasn’t until the 4th generation iPod that the 30 pin USB connector did sync and charge. The long and short of it, however is that Apple has had a love affair with their 30 pin connector since October of 2001.

The last 10 years has seen a great many iPod, iPod Touch and iPhone accessories evolve around the iDevice’s 30 pin connector. When Apple introduced the iPhone 3G, they changed the connector. When they introduced the iPhone 3GS, they changed the connector. When they introduced the iPhone 4 and then the iPhone 4S, they changed the connector. With each connector change, accessories were obsoleted – meaning, they would no longer function as designed and intended. Users were forced to look for updated versions or replacements entirely.

This was both good and bad, as aside from the economic stimulation which was good for retailers and accessory manufacturers, some users resented the fact that they had to spend money to repurchase an accessory that wasn’t broken. Users are now someone resigned to this continual need to “fix what wasn’t broken,” and make budgetary allowances for some key accessory repurchases at the time of device purchase. In some cases, accessories were unaffected by the pin changes. In those cases where functionality was affected, some users are willing to forego full functionality (usually charging), provided that some functionality remained. In the case of speakers or boom boxes, you have to watch to insure that you don’t completely run out of power, but in some cases, that may be acceptable considering the price of the accessory in question.

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, given the accessory investment you made and the usability status of those accessories as they relate to the “new” device, do I have to modify how I use the device and if not; can I afford to repurchase said accessories if they don’t work the way I am used or need them to work?

Less of a Need for a Physical Connection
With the introduction of iOS 5, the need for a physical connector has really changed. It’s now possible to sync your iDevice to a given PC via Wi-Fi. With Airplay, the need for a physical speaker or TV connection is greatly reduced. Without needing to be physically connected to a speaker in order to hear playing music or a TV in order to view video and hear its audio, the need for a wired connection to that centralized or playing endpoint, is greatly reduced if not eliminated. In this scenario, the only reason to have a wired connection to anything is for charging purposes.

From a technology advancement perspective, 4G and LTE radios are a bit bigger in size. Apple’s 30 pin connector takes up a great deal of space – space that might be better utilized by a larger battery. Given that battery life is a huge issue for devices with advanced cellular radios, it really begs the question…What is Apple going to do with its connector?

Bus Compatibility
Obviously, the first thought is Thunderbolt. It’s much smaller, provides a huge speed boost, and would allow for either a larger radio or larger battery, or both. The problem here is that Thunderbolt uses PCI Express, and Apple’s iDevices do not. This would require a total internal redesign of the device’s communications bus, and may present other challenges that would negate the benefit the connector’s smaller form factor. While some of this may be required related to the implementation of LTE, that reengineering may not be as drastic or demanding as the implementation of both LTE and Thunderbolt in Apple’s handheld devices.

The other obvious alternative is microUSB. However, while this may solve the space problem, microUSB doesn’t offer much of an improvement other than size. From a performance perspective, Apple would likely see the same level of performance from a microUSB connector as it would from its current 30 pin connector. If space is the only consideration, this may be the move to look for. If Apple is looking for space and performance bumps, this likely wouldn’t be the solution that Apple would pursue.

Will Apple make a change here? Trying to figure out what they will do seems to be one of the most pursued netizen pastimes of the past few months. If they were to want or need to make a change, now, with pending releases of both iPad 3 and iPhone 5 on the horizon, would obviously be the best time to chase it down.

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