Why iDevices have proprietary docking connectors

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Now that I have hopefully given a bit of perspective on the iTunes aspect of iDevices, I want to turn your attention to another issue that I see a lot: Apple’s proprietary docking connector. It’s loved by some and hated by others, but again this is a technical solution that has more reasons than Apple just wanting to make money.

The dock connector has been around for years, and have survived several generations of iPods, iPhones and now the iPad. At this point, calling it “proprietary” is borderline wrong because so many devices use it that you won’t have any trouble finding a cable for it. The only reasons it’s technically proprietary is that only Apple devices use it, which is true, but that doesn’t really matter if you forget your Android phone charger at home and can’t find a standardized microUSB cable anywhere because everyone has iPhones.

The reason why Apple uses this connector is basically the same as the reason why they use iTunes: you can’t do what it does with any standard cable. It has 30 pins inside it, which is 7.5 times more than the 4 you find in a mini-USB cable. 4 pins is just fine if all you need is a USB connection, as it provides two pins for data and two for power. The problem is when you need other sorts of output-or input, and those 4 pins aren’t enough.

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As someone who’s soldered his fair share of 30 pin iDevice connectors, I can tell you that there are 30 pins for a reason. The full pinout can be found here, and as you can see there is more functionality pressed into 2cm worth of docking connector than there is on an average Swiss Army Knife. Data and power is one thing- that’s what USB does as well. Audio output however, is not something you find on many other devices. We’re not talking headphone output here, this is a line out signal which basically means a raw audio stream that is meant to go through a secondary source (home stereo, car stereo, headphone amp) before being connected to anything. This is often used by audiophiles to connect portable headphone amps and get better sound quality. There is also audio input pins, which is what makes accessories like this one possible.

Video output is another important feature of the dock connector. Many people complain that the iPad lacks HDMI, which is almost standard on other devices by now. It doesn’t as much lack HDMI though as much as it lacks integrated HDMI. HDMI is fine if the device you’re using supports it, but even in 2011 that’s not a 100% certainty. That is especially the case for projectors that you might find in offices and whatnot, which still rely heavily on VGA. On the $800 Motorola Xoom you might be able to slap any HDMI cable into it and go nuts, but you’re screwed if what you’re trying to connect to doesn’t support HDMI. On the iPad, you have to pay extra for the functionality, but you also have the flexibility of different new and old systems: HDMI (no official Apple version, for some stupid reason- probably because I think it’s a converter not an adapter), VGA (d-sub), component, composite or simply an Apple TV if you don’t want cables at all. Personally I don’t connect my iPad to a big screen but I do understand those who prefer a built in HDMI connection rather than an expensive adapter, but I also recognize the importance of composite, component and VGA support (the latter in particular). It comes down to what you need.

I could list various accessories that utilize the dock connector as examples of what the dock connector can do, but the truth is that a 4 pin USB connector can do a lot of the same things. A USB sound device (headset, DAC, soundcard) can give you both media remote controls and digital audio out as long as the device supports it (the iPad does too), and USB also has a power output capability that can power external accessories. That requires a USB port though, which tablets often have but smartphones lack because of the size- and that’s another issue: HDMI, USB, SD card slot etc takes up a lot of space. On a smartphone there isn’t room for it, but on a tablet there is. It does make the device look a bit like swiss cheese though, and you get a few extra holes that dust gets into and that case manufacturers have to work around., which then affects the ergonomics of the cased tablet because you have cutouts everywhere.

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Even if you can duplicate iDevice accessory features through USB, that’s not something you see often…or at all. That’s because different manufacturers can’t agree on a standard layout for anything, so you have 100 different port configurations. Imagine an accessory manufacturer that makes a dock that uses USB audio protocols to get digital audio out and playback controls. On one device the USB port is on top, on another it’s on the bottom, and on a third it requires a dock or adapter of its own. It gets even more ridiculous if you try to use several ports at once- imagine someone trying to create a HDMI dock that also charges your device. Not only would it have to compensate for different HDMI placements (and the use of microHDMI), but it would also have different charging port types and placements to deal with. For any of that to be a feasible option there would need to be a universal agreement saying that e.g a microUSB charging port, microHDMI port and USB port would all be placed at the middle of the device’s bottom, spaced X mm apart in that specific order. Then you could actually create accessories that would work on multiple devices. That’s not the reality though, so there aren’t many accessories available- and those that do exist are normally official and only works with one device.

The Apple dock connector fixes all these issues and provides a single universal docking solution that has all the capabilities of those separate ports (and lots more) in a single 2cm wide connector. Smaller devices- any iPod and the iPhone, that is, can use the same docks just be using a plastic dock adapter (for stability). That is why you can dock an iPhone 4 to a dock that was released before any iPhone was even announced (as long as it doesn’t charge it via Firewire, a feature that was dropped by Apple a few years ago, and even then you just need a small adapter). Even the iPad will work, as long as you get a $5 dock extension cable. Good luck finding any other type of tablet/smartphone that works with a dock system you bought for your MP3 player 5 years ago. Even the thought it ridiculous, but with iDevices it’s a reality.

Lastly, the dock connector system saves space and cost. An SD card slot is basically the biggest port you can add to any device as it goes so far into the device, but add up USB, HDMI etc and you also get quite a bit of hardware to fit into an already cramped device. Put all of that externally, and you have more room for a bigger battery or other things. It also saves cost, and even though accessories are more expensive on their own you’re buying the one thing you need once instead of buying several things you might not need every time you get a new device. If HDMI-fans buy an iPad then at least they have the option to buy an HDMI adapter on the side and it will then work with their iPhone and iPod touch as well. They will also be able to use it for the next generation of their device, unless Apple changes something.

I’m not saying that dock connectors are 100% bliss. Accessories are expensive, especially official Apple adapters and cables- more expensive than anyone would find reasonable. External adapters also means more to carry around and possibly lose, and a bigger cable mess when in use. However you can’t ignore the advantages of such a system, and the insane amount of after-market accessories that are possible because of the dock connector. At the end of the day it comes down to individual preferences and whether you can live with using an expensive adapter or want everything integrated, but keep in mind that there are more reasons behind the dock connector than what many people realize.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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