The Micro-USB is one of the most common cables around, so it’s strange to see others when buying consumer electronics. The only other cables that even come close are lightning cables and mini-USBs, which are both usually on branded items. Even then, if it’s not Apple, the odds of it being lightning compatible are pretty poor. Why this major split?
Computer ports for information transfer could be any shape, but in the early days, the sizes were bulky and bulkier. Small ports and plug-ins like we see today were unfeasible! When the pin-to-data ratio finally broke, electronics manufacturers went a little buck-wild while trying to optimize for size, speed, and ease of use. Circles, squares, and rectangles of all sorts of dimensions scattered across mobile phones and rechargeables.
Eventually, customers got sick of having twenty cables to connect their devices to their new personal computer (or phones), and manufacturers were sick of them too. Even Apple wasn’t yet standardizing their plugs across items – their early keyboards took an absurdly large plug-in to connect to a computer. If the computer didn’t have the right port, the answer was usually ‘get lost’. It was bad. Parallel ports, serial ports, all kinds of ports. Luckily for everyone, USB tech swept in and saved the day.It’s not an exaggeration to say that USB tech streamlined personal computers forever.
USBs and USB variants sorted to the front of the pack for phones in the 2000s, and have been there ever since. Not only are they sturdy and small, they’re also backwards/forwards compatible with other USB products, invaluable for durable electronics. USB-C is even considered future-proof!
Lightning cables have a similar origin story: Apple wanted to standardize their own products, but – Apple being Apple – they saw issues with the mini-USB and wanted to streamline it, and also produce a proprietary product they had full control over.
Commonality: The USB options
Mini-USBs were very popular when the first mobile phones were coming out, and nearly every mobile device took one. Why? If they come in all shapes and sizes, why did it narrow down so quickly?
Most brands like to conform. The more common a plug-in port is, the easier it is to find parts for it, and the easier it is to find parts, the less reluctant your potential purchasers will be. Even though film cameras are still being made, they’re rare because of how difficult it is to find compatible roll film, for example. It takes extra effort to seek them out, so the cameras don’t sell as well as digital, even though they’re cheaper. The niche is already filled by something more accessible!
If Samsung uses a cord that nobody else uses, they’ll have a captive audience for their manufacturing… but they’ll also alienate users who don’t have anything else compatible. If the cord’s not available in every gas station, then the end customer doesn’t want to risk going without their phone for days while a new charging cable arrives through the mail – no matter how good the phone is! Just like film cameras, the charger is a huge part of the final product, even though it’s cheap and small. Requiring special peripherals will sour customers when a perfect solution, like Micro-USBs, already exist elsewhere.
Besides, countries generally don’t like having to worry about electronics waste, and the EU in particular was putting pressure on manufacturers to standardize. Cheap, disposable electronics are a major problem for landfills and recycling plants. If the cord that came with a cheap toy is reusable, it won’t end up in the dump as quickly. This assumes that all cords are made equally well, which is obviously not true, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Micro USB-A and USB-Cs, the other two big charger options, appear on basically everything else, partly because of the EU, partly because those are just the two best options. Most android devices use one of the two. Heck, even knock-offversions of Apple productsuse the Micro-USB. Every chargeable cat toy in the first 20 results on Amazon is a micro-USB. Small consumer electronics overwhelmingly use the micro-USB! Where they don’t (or can’t), like on non-Apple laptops, or chargeable flashlights, the answer is usually a unique plug that doesn’t transmit data alongside power, something like a jack, instead of a plug. Even then, laptops are increasingly moving towards some form of USB input for power, too.
Commonality: The Lightning Cable
The lightning cable was first introduced in 2012. The most common one before that, their 30-pin connector, looks hilariously oversized for the devices it connected to. It made sense on the iPad… but seeing a 30-pin hooked up to a phone to transfer data was kind of funny, especially considering how small the old iPhones were.
Apple, of course, decided to make the lightning cable their default for everything they sold, with some rare exceptions. Other companies, like Blackberry and Nokia, had already switched to mini-USBs for plug-ins when Apple was about to update the 30-pin connector – what else could they possibly upgrade to if not a USB option?
Apple would be shunning compatibility ideals. Anything they decided upon was going to have to be future proof and superior to the future proof options already on the market. Otherwise, regulators and customers alike might have thrown a fit.
Lightning cables were the result. Why? They don’t have to be flipped around to plug in like USBs do. Apple copyrighted the term ‘lightning’ which gave them greater control over accessory production, which meant good things for the quality (at the time). Mini-USB options (at the time) couldn’t say that! Apple even took it a step further, and tried to keep phones from accepting unofficial accessories, but that was pretty quickly cracked, and they dropped it.
The lightning cable, as a standard for all Apple products, also meant that they’d made their own standard. They were able to argue that the USB-to-lightning included with the first lightning phones made it ‘standard’ enough for the EU, and later on that switching would make way more waste, and also out-date most Apple devices. They stood out, now, and the inconvenience of having to find lightning cables was more than made up for by the advantages the iPhone, iPad, and Mac devices had over the rest of the market. Anyone with an Apple device was in the market for lightning cables and occasionally the USB-C, while people who didn’t buy all their electronics from one brand were left with all sorts of laptop chargers and phone cables.
Another company might have failed to pull it off, but Apple’s dedication to it’s own standards put the lightning cable right next to mini-USBs.