Saturday, September 15, 2012

The iPhone Connector is the New 19.2 Modem

The consuming world is abuzz with the announcement of the stretch iPhone, but there was a collective groan over the new connector that was announced. It did not take long, however, for the fanboys to take Apple's side in the matter. I was also initially disappointed in the connector, but I've since stepped back from that opinion. I am, however, very much reminded of the old U.S. Robotics proprietary HST technology that brought us 19.2 kbps modems, along with some minor headaches.

The Groan Heard Around the World

I'm not sure why anyone was surprised at the proprietary connector. I certainly wasn't surprised, except when I saw that it had shed a multitude of its pins. At first glance it's advantages were that it is proprietary, which is a financial advantage for Apple, and that it is reversible.

The problem, of course, is that it is not standard. No other phone will have this connector, and Apple has patents to assure this. Nothing on the iPhone is standard, everything is proprietary. This is fine for Apple because it forces everyone to kowtow to their dominance. It sucks for everyone who doesn't own an Apple device. It's not that Apple couldn't set standards here, it is that everything Apple does with their i-devices is anticompetitive.

The problem for the consumer, and the reason for the groans, is that this means more i-device-only cables, more expense, and more waste. The proliferation of cables and adapters is a problem that other tech companies are attempting to solve. Apple was always part of the problem and they have now doubled-down on their selfish commitment to it.

The Fanboy Cavalry and a Slight Redemption

It didn't take long for the fanboys to do a 180 on this topic, that is if we assume they didn't celebrate the new adapter out of brazen consumer idolatry. The same old arguments arose, that USB standards were not up to the task and that this connector is somehow physically better than USB, and that this connector will allow added functionality that i-device users enjoy. Mix that in with some claims that reversibility is a killer feature and you have their argument. Yawn. Fanboys will be fanboys, but we shouldn't dismiss their arguments on that basis alone. Let's offer some counterpoints.

Point: The USB standards are subpar for video.
Counterpoint: This is false, but even if we assume it is true there are alternative standards that could be supported. For instance, there is MHL which builds on micro USB to deliver higher transfer rates and is able to output to either USB or HDMI. I'll backtrack a little and say that the claim that USB as fast is true if we focus purely on the current micro USB spec. Apple's cable should be faster than most micro USB cables, but that is easily overcome without this wasteful proprietary move.

Point: The new connector is physically better than micro USB.
Counterpoint: I think this claim is somewhat valid but with the caveat that the port is better but the cable itself is likely not. If you look at the port on the new iPhone you will see a very solid construction. I believe that this port will have less problems with wear and tear than micro USB ports have. Instead, I think the rigidity of the port will likely mean more wear on the cable. That's actually preferable because a cable is easier and cheaper to replace than a port. The one counterpoint I can offer is that there are designs for more durable micro USB ports that don't take up any more space. Still, I'll give this one to Apple, and I think in a few years when older micro USB devices become harder to charge and iPhones do not we'll fully understand the benefit of this.

Point: This connector will allow added functionality that i-device users enjoy.
Counterpoint: I call BS on this. The added functionality comes from supporting Apple's proprietary systems. This is essentially the same benefit that users of Microsoft Word enjoy. There is no reason why a standard micro USB connector couldn't deliver the same ability to stream audio (though for video you should see my first counterpoint above). The cable is not requisite for this or the other end of the cable would not be a standard USB connector, only the proprietary software interface is required. The connectors are about bandwidth more than anything, everything is digital so there's no reason for this except perhaps the absence of a competing software standard.

Point: The new connector is reversible.
Counterpoint: This is a good usability feature, but it comes at the cost of usability otherwise. Think about this, would you rather have a single, ubiquitous cable standard or to not have to spend an extra half second flipping the cable over? Ideally, I'd rather have both. Apple has created a world where we can have one or the other. From a convenience and waste perspective, I would absolutely rather have the standard.

As you can see here the counterpoints to some of these arguments are not very strong. Apple clearly didn't create their own connector without ensuring it would be a quality product. The problem I have with this is that the only party that benefits fully from this connector is Apple. Consumers lose out because standards are bucked again. The world loses out because non-standard connectors contribute to waste.

An Allegory at U.S. Robotics

I mentioned U.S. Robotics in this article because the story is so similar. USR was notorious for constantly developing their own technologies when the rest of the industry had long since agreed on a Hayes standard. As with Apple piggy-backing USB in their proprietary connectors, USR would start with standards and build proprietary technologies atop them.

The result of USR's hijinks was increased sales to BBS operators and ISPs. The reason is that only USR devices could support their version of HST. If a customer had a 19.2 modem and they connected to a modem that was not made by USR, their connection was the same 14.4 as everyone else. No consumer is going to accept the argument that you object to USR's practices, so service operators simply switched to USR.

For customers this wasn't transparent, though. USR's HST standard could've been better, and it showed. Most connections were no better than 14.4 anyway, so the promise of better performance was never met. Modems equipped with their HST technology cost more and delivered the same performance, which is likely what we'll see out of Apple's new cable.

Eventually the industry would top out with a standard of 56 kbps. USR couldn't offer a stable proprietary competitor that topped that, so they lost their speed advantage. They won against Hayes, as they outlasted that company before being gobbled up by 3Com. They lost out in the end, though, because generic competitors were able to undercut them using standards.

That's where the stories diverge, though. While I have no doubt that Apple will eventually come crashing back down to Earth, this cable will not lose out to standards as easily. The biggest reason for this is because the cable exists for connecting to Apple's products, and Apple is the number one company in the world at making people believe they need their products. USR did not control either end of the connection so thoroughly and their modems had to talk in a standards compliant way to both the client computer and the host modem.

What's more is that Apple has filed two patents on their cable. The rumor is that Apple intends to use these patents to go after cheap copies. If Apple can prevent third parties from selling cables cheaply, they can make a lot of money when the cables fail. If I'm right about the design favoring the cable failing, this will translate into another boost in profits for Apple. Even if the cable does prove to be sufficiently durable, Apple will still control the entire add-on market at the expense of the consumer.

How to Fix the Problem

There is a way for Apple to fix the entire problem. They won't do it, of course. Rather than snubbing their nose at standards, they could participate in the process or allow the industry to use theirs. Apple is terrible about standards. They constantly come up with proprietary technologies that ensure lock-in and are incredibly favorable to their devices, yet they rely on standards that others spent millions to develop. This poor neighbor standing and Apple's frivolously litigious nature are the only reasons I can support suing the company for using patented standards. 

I won't hold my breath for Apple to change. No company ever changes if their tactics bring them so much profit. This cable design is but a microcosm of their entire ethos, and I'm sure they'll profit from it.