Apple’s Magical Ecosystem

Ever since I switched from Android to iOS last December, I’ve been thinking about some of the ways that Apple did things differently from Google over the past few years. Apple is constantly criticized for not using “open” standards, but those decisions often end up making more sense over time. Case in point: Apple’s much-maligned Lightning connector.

What’s wrong with the Lightning connector? The primary complaint is that Apple locked down the standard by requiring an authentication chip in the cable, to discourage cheap cables that didn’t meet their standards. You can still buy counterfeit cables, but they have a bad track record of suddenly not working, especially after the iOS 7 update.

Fortunately, Apple MFi-certified cables are now cheaper. Apple-branded Lightning cables are still expensive: $19 for a 1-meter cable (iPhones come with this size), or $29 for a 2-meter (6-ft) cable. For comparison, Monoprice sells MFi-certified Lightning-to-USB cables for $4.99 and $5.99, respectively.

Lightning has a few minor benefits over the micro-USB connectors on every Android phone. The most noticeable is that you can plug the Lightning cable into the iPhone/iPad in either direction. This alone makes wireless charging (a popular feature on Android phones in recent years) much less appealing. The cable also feels more solidly attached to the phone. Consequently, I leave my phone plugged into the charger at all times, even when I’m using it at home, so my battery is always at 100%, and I’m not using up its charge/discharge cycles unnecessarily. That’s a good tip for any phone.

Now here’s where it gets interesting, and we can see how Apple makes their high profits without alienating their customers. When Apple switched from their previous 30-pin dock connector to Lightning, they had to figure out how to make adapters for all the different A/V formats that the dock supported. Apple didn’t build a Lightning-to-composite-video adapter, but they do sell Lightning-to-VGA and Lightning-to-HDMI adapters for $49 each.

What’s interesting about Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter is that it has an embedded SoC to generate HDMI output from encoded H.264 video, plus (presumably uncompressed) audio, sent over the Lightning cable, along with sufficient power for the SoC. See this teardown for details, particularly this comment left by (presumably) an anonymous Apple engineer confirming how it works, and why Lightning was designed this way.

Okay, so that seems like the sort of thing that would be easy enough to copy, so what was Android doing to support HDMI video output? A whole bunch of different things, all incompatible with each other. If you bought a Nexus 10 tablet, or a Motorola Xoom, you need a micro-HDMI to HDMI cable, which are somewhat rare, but not expensive. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus supported MHL output, which requires one type of $15 adapter, while the Nexus 4, 5, and 7 support the competing SlimPort standard, which requires a different type of $15 adapter. The Nexus 9 tablet, and this year’s Nexus 5X and 6P phones, don’t support any kind of wired HDMI output. Google wants you to buy a $35 Chromecast to do wireless streaming.

If you’re a loyal Android customer, and you actually use the HDMI-out feature (I don’t, myself), you’re probably a little upset with Google for abandoning support for it. If you consider the amount of engineering work needed to support HDCP (required by TV & movie studios for content protection of their videos), it makes sense for Google to remove HDMI output on their recent devices, but the whole thing makes Google’s entire Android ecosystem feel a bit uncertain and flimsy. Contrast this with Apple’s approach, where you pay a premium price for something that you know is very likely to work as advertised for the next 3–5 years.

Apple reused the same technology to stream a car-friendly UI to the touch screen console of new cars, with Apple CarPlay. It works on every iPhone with a Lightning connector, going back to the iPhone 5 (Sept. 2012). Google’s version of the same product, Android Auto, works with every Android phone with Android Lollipop, which means it works on the Nexus 4 and newer, but not on many Android phones which haven’t received the Lollipop update, and maybe never will. That’s not Google’s fault, but it’s another reason for owners of Android phones that aren’t getting regular OS updates to consider switching.

This year’s hotness is USB Type-C, which is (finally!) reversible, and supports much higher charging speeds and data rates than Lightning. I suspect that Apple will upgrade Lightning to support faster transfer rates in a backwards-compatible way for next year’s iPhones, rather than switch to USB-C like they’ve done on this year’s MacBook. Lightning has a lot of things going for it, thanks to Apple’s proprietary adapter and cable ecosystem. It would make the most sense for them to sell a new Lightning 2.0 to USB Type-C cable for high-speed data transfers and leave the rest unchanged.

In conclusion, the Lightning connector is a perfect example of Apple making a strategic decision to go with something proprietary and locked down, with a long-term plan to make Lightning support everything from HDMI and VGA output to charging peripherals (like the new Apple Pencil) to CarPlay, while the Android ecosystem was stuck with micro-USB, its non-reversible cable, and its incompatible (and optional) HDMI output standards. Open and free does not always win. Apple may be “greedy” in charging a premium price for their proprietary Lightning cables and adapters, but as long as users are happy, everybody wins (except Google and the Android device makers).

I'm a software engineer in the Los Angeles area specializing in mobile applications and embedded systems.

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