The Foolproof Dock Connector

How can you improve on Apple’s nine year old 30-pin dock connector?

You might start by reducing the size. Ever shrinking gadgets need smaller connectors. You could also reduce complexity. A simpler design would be easier to use, easier to make, less prone to failure, more sustainable, and cheaper.

If those are the two big improvements, add one need: Longevity.

You have to design a connector like this for the long term. No technology can last forever, but the stakes are really high for this part. Last quarter alone, Apple sold close to 50 million iPhones, iPads, and iPods. This was in a quarter that many (crazy) people considered to be a disappointing one. All of those devices came with 30-pin connectors. Over the next ten years, Apple will need to make a billion of these new connectors. 

It has to be used across multiple product archetypes. These days its smartphones, tablets, PCs, and MP3 players, but you need to take into account things you might invent in the future. The iPhone was four years away from existence when the first 30-pin connector shipped. Needless to say, designing for longevity is the hardest part of creating a new connector. 

So, reduced size, reduced complexity, longevity.

Great design briefs aim for something more than just listing requirements. They try to have one succinct and clear thought that can be the rallying cry for the whole team. A headline. Something that can carry over to the marketing of the product. When you tell someone that headline, they instantly get it. Boom. Of course that would be the goal.

I think the goal of this leaked part is this: Design the foolproof dock connector.

Let’s start by thinking about connectors in a very elemental way: A post is inserted into a hole, which results in two metal ends touching to create a circuit.

As it turns out, most connectors for electronics are physically more complex than that. When you insert a connector into a port, you think you are inserting a post to a hole, but usually you are aligning a post inside of that hole into a hole that is inside of the post. This is a simplified cross-section of what it looks like:

Usually this works OK, but it does makes it harder to line up the two parts and can sometimes cause damage. Think bent VGA pins or how many times you have to spin a USB connector around until you get it to fit. The current 30-pin dock connector is designed like this. 

A better, simpler design would do exactly what we think we are doing. Inserting a post into a hole. Like this:

Some connectors are designed like this. Headphone jacks for example. Reducing complexity reduces the chance for error.

The connection of the metal ends needs to remain constant to maintain a signal. That means connectors and ports are generally designed so a firm, solid metal piece comes in contact with a flexible metal piece. The flexible piece tightly hugs the solid piece, preventing signal loss. The flexible parts can be anything from pogo pins to just a thin piece of bent metal that physically flexes, like inside the 30 pin connector.

The solid parts are stronger because they’re solid. The flexible parts are weaker because they can move. Because the flexible parts are weaker, you want to make sure they are recessed so they can be protected.

The first thing you notice are the eight gold pins. They’re small, racetrack shaped, and flat. They look like the connectors you would see on a SD card or even Apple’s OS X USB install stick from Lion. In other words, the stronger, solid pieces of metal are exposed, which means the weaker, flexible pieces of metal are probably concealed inside the port end of the device.

The solid gold pins are separated from each other within in a white rectangular piece of plastic. That plastic rectangle is at the end of what looks like a flat silver post. The post appears to be solid. No posts with holes to align with holes with posts like on the 30-pin connector. This is a very simple “post in hole” design.

Those two design choices, exposed solid gold pins and a solid flat post, make this connector tremendously more durable than the 30-pin design. Again, the simpler you make something, the less prone to failure it becomes. Its almost as simple as a headphone jack, which I think is the best analogy to this design. 

(Update 8.19: iResQ has gotten their hands on both the iPhone and iPad “mini” dock ports. They show eight flexible pins and a simple port design like you would expect. The shape of the port also matches up with the leaked iPhone pics as well as the shape of the flat metal post.)

Let’s dig a little deeper. The pins appear to be mirrored on both sides of that flat silver post. Meaning, you see pins on one side and it you flip it over, you would see an identical set of pins on the other side. It’s hard to confirm this without video, but I think that this is true.

The mirrored pins could be implemented in two different ways:

  1. 16 pins - 8 pins on the top and 8 different pins on the bottom.
  2. 8 pins - The 8 pins on the top and bottom have mirrored functionality.

Wait a second. 9to5 Mac noticed that iOS 6 betas have references to a hardware feature called “9Pin”. The hardware feature is widely presumed to be a new dock connector featuring 9 pins. That rules out the 16 pin option, but what about the 8 pin option? Kyle Wiens of iFixit has a possible answer to that: the silver post might act as a big grounding pin. There’s the ninth pin. (Coincidentally, USB 3 Standard A and B requires 9 pins. I’m not saying this is USB 3, it could just be an interesting coincidence.)

Regardless of the number of pins, this connector looks perfectly symmetrical, which means you can probably insert it in either orientation and it will work. That would solve the issue of inserting the connector incorrectly and causing damage. Yet another simplification and a win for users.

(Update 8.19: The leaked ports show eight pins plus metal divot clips, which could act as the grounding connector. In other words, it adds up to nine pins in the port. Since the pins are only on one side of the port, it confirms that the mirrored pins are for reversibility.)

That flat silver post looks like it sticks out a bit. I think the extra length would help it adapt to a setback radius like you see on the iPad 2 and 3. It’s hard to tell from the picture just how far it sticks out, but if you look at one of the disassembled pieces, you can see a light grey plastic thing attached to the metal. I think this plastic will sit flush with the white plastic housing, giving you a rough idea of how long the post is. 

On the edge of the silver post, there is a divot. The divot is most likely mirrored on the other side of the post. This looks to me like a locking feature. A spring loaded clip inside the port could snap into the divots, giving it a nice audible click or locking sensation when you plug it in.

(Update 8.15: Matthew Panzarino suggests that it could be a spring loaded ball bearing acting as the clip in the port. That sounds right.) (Update 8.19: iResq’s pics show what looks like a flat metal clip.)

Most connectors have sharp right angles at the end. The silver post on this design is rounded off. This could be helpful for docking. Instead of carefully aligning the connector with the port, you might be able to drop your iPhone into a cradle without having to aim it, preventing both damage to the connector and scratches your to device’s housing. 

It’s impossible to know from these pictures if this connector is magnetic like MagSafe, but based on the length of the connector, the locking divots, and the fact that it’s rounded at the end, I’m going to guess its not.

That brings us to the white plastic housing. This is the area you grip when you insert the connector into your device. Its racetrack shaped, like the dock port we have seen on the leaked unibody iPhone images which would be a good visual cue. Match this shape to this shape. Nice and obvious. The circular hole out the back of the housing is for the cable and looks roughly the same size in diameter as the current 30-pin connecter cable.

One thing I am really curious to know about is how that flat silver post was made. I don’t see any seams that would indicate that it was stamped and folded like USB connectors typicaly are. It could have been machined from a solid piece of metal. It also could have been cast or injection molded.

Here’s some wild speculation: Liquidmetal can be injection molded. I’m not saying this part is made with Liquidmetal, I’m saying this is a good application for it. According to Wikipedia, Liquidmetal atttributes include: “…high tensile strength, excellent corrosion resistance, very high coefficient of restitution and excellent anti-wearing characteristics…” Good features to have on a part that takes the amount of abuse that a iOS dock connector does. 

Let me put it another way, after the “Unibody iPhone" piece came out, a few people asked me if that design was made out of Liquidmetal. I think its more likely that this connector is made out of Liquidmetal than the unibody iPhone.

I can’t say for sure that this is the new iOS dock connector, but my gut feeling says that it probably is. Even if it’s not, we can at least agree that this design has some pretty smart features baked in. A “job well done” to its creator.

Thinking about what the new connector needs to do: Reduced size, reduced complexity, longevity… this design would seem to touch all the bases.

It’s much smaller. Solid pins and a symmetrical post and hole design are a simpler physical design. My guess would be that for the first year of manufacturing this part, it will be more expensive than it is to make the 30-pin connector. As Apple gets better at making it in scale, the cost will go down and eventually it will be cheaper than the current design. Its also important to remember when factoring simplicity that less material means less cost and more sustainability. Stronger parts mean reduced repair costs. Less repairs equal happy customers. Over time, the savings could be huge. 

Longevity is impossible to determine not knowing the tech specs of what we’re looking at. All we can tell from the physical attributes of this part is that it is small, robust, and could connect to both shallow and deep ports. That’s about it.

What I like about this design is that it doesn’t look like what you would expect a connector to look like. It looks like a consumer product. Refined. Finished. Non-threatening. Everything about it leads me to think it was designed by industrial designers and not electrical engineers. I’m sure engineers were involved with its creation, but ID drove it. That’s rare for a project like this. At most companies, this would be considered to be a “technical” problem led by the engineering team with design input, not a “design” problem led by the design team with engineering input. Apple is not most companies.

Why does Apple need to invent their own connector? Why not use mini or micro USB? They’re smaller than the 30 pin connector. They’re standards. They’re likely cheaper. They already exist. 

Part of it is control. We are about to witness one the fastest connector adoptions in history because Apple created and completely controlled their own standard. I would be really surprised if it took more than 18 months for the entire iOS line and accessory market to adopt this connector.

I don’t think Apple’s motives are control for the sake of power. They want control to make the best thing they can. Go back to my imagined design brief headline. Design the foolproof dock connector. Give eight different companies that brief and you would get eight different solutions. Now try to get those eight companies to agree on just one solution. After several years of fighting over inane details, you would end up with a watered down, sad version of an foolproof connector. If Apple could design a connector from scratch, without having to cooperate and compromise, it could very well end up looking like this.

  1. haldotdotdot reblogged this from itsmorereal
  2. aloadof reblogged this from itsmorereal and added:
    Great post about the rumoured new dock connector.
  3. byteharvest reblogged this from itsmorereal and added:
    So much attention to detail for such a simple looking connector.
  4. theswirling reblogged this from itsmorereal
  5. karanmav reblogged this from itsmorereal and added:
    Fantastic analysis
  6. talksoon reblogged this from itsmorereal
  7. itsmorereal posted this