We previously told you that Apple will be licensing its female Lightning port to third-party accessories, following an announcement to Made for iPhone licensees late last year. Since then, the company has released specs for the Lightning port that details exactly what Apple hopes to achieve by opening it up to third-parties, including how it could improve accessories.
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Many different accessories will use the female Lightning port. According to manufacturers briefed on Apple’s specs, the company is hoping that a number of accessories adopt the Lightning port standard instead of micro-USB, including docks, battery cases, game controllers, headphones, and Bluetooth speakers. In these cases, Apple will allow the port to draw power from Apple or MFi-certified power adapters. The port may also be beneficial for manufacturers of Lightning cabled headphones, which are just starting to appear after announcements from JBL and Philips during last week’s CES.
The port can directly charge, as well as offer passthrough charging and syncing. Apple will notably also allow passthrough charging and syncing of iOS devices connected to the Lightning accessory. According to Apple, passthrough-enabled accessories could include headphones, smart cases, and battery power banks. The iOS device would connect to the accessory via a built-in male Lightning plug (say, the connector inside a Mophie charging case), while a female Lightning port on the accessory’s bottom would provide power via a Lightning cable to USB power adapter. Passthrough could also allow an accessory such as a dock to charge the iOS device while the user is simultaneously listening to Lightning headphones.
One port per accessory. Accessories can only include one Lightning port, according to Apple’s specs, which might limit the ability to connect multiple devices to an accessory via Lightning. For example, multiple Lightning ports would otherwise in theory allow a splitter dongle — like those available for traditional headphones— to connect multiple sets of Lightning headphones to a single iOS device, or create a multi-port hub akin to a USB hub. Apple most likely wants to eliminate power drain and the potential for interference by reducing the number of simultaneous connections.
Fewer cables and power supplies. We noted in our previous report that using the Lightning port— opposed to USB— would reduce costs for manufacturers and simplify the product experience by allowing users to charge any Apple accessory using the Lightning cable that originally came with the device. Accessories wouldn’t have to include a separate power supply and cable.
Faster charging. Another benefit of Lightning, according to Apple, is the ability to charge accessories faster than with USB. Apple notes that using the same Lightning cable plugged and power adapter that came with your iPhone (or a MFi-certified USB power adapter) allows charging of internal batteries at higher rates than with USB options, including the micro-USB port currently used for charging on most accessories. Accessories drawing power must be capable of pulling at least 1.0A from a power adapter, but Apple recommends 2.4A.
Apple doesn’t detail specifics on limitations of charging via Lightning, but USB charging limits were thought to be amongst the reasons Apple went with its own Lightning connector in the first place. At the very least, accessories will be able to utilize the 12W USB charger Apple has available for iPads, which can step down to lower power output as necessary. Faster charging would be ideal for accessories with larger internal batteries, with Apple specifically mentioning game controllers, headphones and speakers as products that will benefit.
An uncertain timeline. Currently, the Lightning port is available in sample quantities for development purposes, but its specs for the component currently remain in Developer Preview mode; any products being developed will have to be tested with upcoming final specs before hitting the market. Some sections of the specs are listed as “to be determined.” To the best of our knowledge, no third-party accessories with female Lightning ports were shown at CES this year.
The female Lightning port component provides yet another advantage to accessory makers enrolled in Apple’s licensing program, but we’ll have to wait to see if manufacturers adopt it. It’s possible that the first accessory to take advantage of the port will come from Apple itself, as the company’s Beats Electronics division could include it for recharging Bluetooth headphones. There are plenty of other applications, including ones that Apple hasn’t yet disclosed, which could be even more interesting.