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Let Go of All Those Frayed iPhone Cords


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    The Lightning cable is finally dead. It’s about time.

    A tangled Lightening cable
    Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

    Some annoyances in life are unavoidable: the creak in your knees as you age, the tax code, Pete Davidson. Others are foisted on you by corporations hell-bent on leveraging their market power for financial gain. The iPhone cord is the latter.

    For more than a decade, Apple’s Lightning cable has been something like the avocado of consumer electronics: wildly expensive relative to its shelf life. The proprietary cords that power the world’s billion-plus iPhones turn into a fraying mess before they stop working altogether. There goes another $19 straight to the world’s most valuable company, and another scrap for the e-waste junkyard. Back when the Apple Store website let customers leave reviews, the Lightning cable notched a whopping average of 1.5 stars out of five. (One representative comment from 2016: “Probably the worst charging cable I have ever used. Breaks easily and is way to [sic] short. And in some cases it even just decides to stop working even though there’s no wire damage.”)

    These days, a perfectly reasonable approach to a new iPhone announcement is to ignore it altogether, but the latest model, which Apple unveiled today, has more than a slightly better camera: It finally—finally!—kills the Lightning charger port once and for all. Instead, going forward, all iPhones will use USB-C, the same cord now used by MacBooks, Kindles, Chromebooks, phones, and most other devices. The switch might feel annoying, resulting in another cord destined for that overstuffed cardboard box where your clunky OG iPod connector and various A/V hookups went to die. Might I instead suggest joy?

    The Lightning connector lived up to Apple’s reputation for beautiful products—at least until the rubber started to tatter, exposing the wires. In fact, fragility is the result of how the Lightning cord is designed, Kyle Wiens, the CEO of the repair group iFixit, told me: “They’re just going for as thin as possible.” That means a sleek strain-relief gasket at the head of the cord rather than something more robust, and plastic that ditches the environmentally unfriendly but sturdier PVC material you can find on cords that don’t break quite so easily.

    It starts as a small break, or maybe even just a crease, in the cord. The crack gradually widens, a gyre that electrical tape can patch over for only so long. You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to understand that plugging in a cable with visible wiring is not a great idea. When that happens, iPhone owners are of course on the hook to buy new ones. Because the Lightning cord is a proprietary standard from Apple, it’s more expensive than it needs to be. Even if you don’t buy a replacement from Apple itself, any version from a third party like Belkin or Anker must honor the specifications (and healthy licensing fees) required by Apple. It may add up to a pittance for a company that took in nearly $400 billion in revenue last year, but it hits Apple’s customers with an avoidable expense.

    Given how entrenched Lightning has become, you’d think the switch to USB-C would be a costly, jarring mess. Not so. USB-C is ubiquitous, so there is a good chance you already have a USB-C cord, or several, lying around somewhere. If so, it’ll work on the new iPhone no matter where you get it from. (Some cords will work better than others, maybe; USB-C is universal, but various iterations can charge and transfer data at different speeds.)

    This isn’t an immediate future. Unless you are planning on getting a new iPhone right away, you can’t toss those Lightning cables just yet. (In the meantime, Apple will gladly sell you a USB-C to Lightning adapter for a mere $29.) Eventually, though, everyone with an iPhone will rely on USB-C. And even if Apple’s next decade of cables wears and tears as quickly as the last, at least you’ll have options.

    That’s the real reason the Lightning cord will not be missed. Its trajectory provides both a symbol of Apple’s walled-garden hubris and a blueprint for how to dismantle it. It’s the same business philosophy—retain control over every piece of your ecosystem, and reap the profits—that powers the App Store, Apple Watch bands, iMessage. This is not a change Tim Cook made out of the goodness of his heart, necessarily; it happened because European Union regulators demanded it not just for the iPhone, but for every single mobile phone, tablet, and camera sold in the EU. They’ve got software in their sights as well, requiring that Apple allow third-party app stores on the iPhone starting next year. And just last month, Apple threw its support behind a bill in California that would make it easier to repair your own iPhone, a stance that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, before the “right to repair” movement picked up steam. “The regulation is forcing them to change,” Wiens said.

    The power cord might be the least glamorous element of the iPhone ecosystem. But it’s like the plumbing in your walls: You only think about it if something goes wrong. For the past decade, iPhone owners have had to think about Lightning cables far too often. Now, thanks not to Cupertino innovation but to good old-fashioned regulation, charging your iPhone might finally fulfill Apple’s most ambitious promise: It just works.

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