Back in January, it became obvious that Apple’s first round of officially-sanctioned Lightning accessories were about to have some compatibility problems. The company specified a small Lightning port opening for the bottoms of cases, but separately required a larger 40-millimeter Lightning plug housing for authorized docks and speakers. Since roughly 4 out of 5 iPhone users protect their devices with cases, companies quickly figured out that complying with Apple’s directives meant creating products that wouldn’t work together. Multiple developers have told us that they want to release compatible accessories, but can’t without running afoul of Apple’s rules: Apple now reviews and approves every licensed design, so there’s no way around its requirements.
Prominent developers are telling us that “it’s time for Apple to start over on this one.” Case makers and dock/speaker makers shouldn’t be getting two different stories given how common types of accessories are supposed to interact with each other. Thus far, the requirements have led to a collection of Lightning speakers that are even less case-compatible than the Dock Connector versions that came before. So now that the first-year dust has mostly cleared with Lightning—a supposedly long-term connector standard for iOS devices—Apple could easily provide a common connector size specification that works on both sides of the equation.
The critical concern for Apple’s engineering team appears to be providing sufficient support for a docked device—something as small as an iPod or as large as an iPad—such that it doesn’t tip in any direction once installed on a Lightning connector. Relatively smart case-friendly solutions such as OCDesk’s OCDock use spring-loaded plates to adjust the depth of the Lightning plug, providing as much support as is needed, while companies such as iHome and Soundfreaq have previously used removable rubber dock inserts with more modest success. Interestingly, several developers (notably including Belkin and Cooler Master) have required users to insert Apple’s Lightning cables inside otherwise passive iPhone docks, primarily because Apple has saved for its own products the smallest and most case-compatible plug housing around. Inconvenient to install and somewhat loose after being placed inside, the cable-based solutions nonetheless offer case compatibility that typical speakers cannot.
Spring-loaded plates and rubber inserts aside, there are other options. We could return to the days of hard plastic Universal Dock Adapters that preceded the iPad’s release, but that’s something we’d guess Apple’s not keen to do again. Alternately, Apple could recommend that developers make open-bottomed cases, though this would unnecessarily limit device protection. Or it could develop a novel dock-specific Lightning plug with hidden reinforcement underneath to reduce width. It’s quite possible that such a solution has existed in Apple’s labs for a long time, given that this isn’t the first connector it has developed for these devices.
One simple and plausible alternative: just let third-party dock and speaker developers use the same small sized plug housings as Apple does for its own accessories, jutting up a few millimeters from the otherwise flat surface. Case developers could size or taper their case bottoms around the port to accommodate this, if they haven’t already. Most existing cases would work without an issue. A rubber pad could be included for the 20% of users who use their devices bare.
Is this a critical issue? If it affects a strong majority of iPhone users—and for no good reason—we’d say yes. And it’s time to fix it in an elegant way.