7 Nov 2016

Apple is Fragmenting Itself

Fragmentation occurs when a product line is divided into products that use incompatible standards or technologies, so what works with one doesn't work with another. Fragmentation is unavoidable in an open market, like Android. Some phones use USB-C, and others still use micro USB, so your cables, chargers, power banks and car chargers may no longer work if you buy a new phone. Since every Android OEM is free to make its own decisions, that's a fact of life.

However, on a closed platform, like Apple, you do some someone in a position to have a coherent big-picture strategy, to make coordinated decisions across products. Or so you'd think. But Apple is fragmenting itself.

For one, some Macs use USB-C, while others still use the old USB-A. When Apple introduced USB-C with the one-port Macbook, everyone assumed that it will soon spread throughout the Mac lineup. But, even today, a year and half after the one-port Macbook was introduced, Apple still sells many Macs with only old USB ports — Macbook Air, iMac, Mac Mini and Mac Pro. People who switch from one Mac to another, or who use two Macs, may need to buy two sets of peripherals. Or buy dongles.

The old USB ports aren't the only incompatible ports between Macs. Another is the old Thunderbolt port, which is shaped the same as the Mini DisplayPort, as opposed to Thunderbolt 3, which uses the USB-C port.

Heck, even adapters are incompatible. I have a Thunderbolt-to-Firewire adapter, and it won't work with the new Thunderbolt port. This is ironic when you stop to think that the whole reason adapters exist is to bridge incompatible ports. But the adapters themselves have turned out to be incompatible, due to Apple's poorly coordinated transitions.

Things get even worse when you bring the iPad into the picture. The iPad uses a third incompatible port, Lightning. Apple has fragmented itself into three incompatible versions! This is not a hypothetical problem. I wanted to use my wired Apple keyboard with my 13-inch iPad, but I couldn't, since the iPad has only Lightning. My keyboard was useless. I had to buy another one. I ended up buying a Bluetooth keyboard, but when I did my research, I found some Lightning keyboards on the market. Those are again a bad purchase because they won't work with Macs.

Buying a wired keyboard was simple years ago: just buy a USB keyboard. Now it's a mess, because you have to choose between three incompatible ports: USB-C, USB-A and Lightning. Even if all you use are Apple devices.

Similarly, iPhones won't charge or sync from new Macbooks, since the ports are incompatible: the iPhone comes with a USB-A cable, while the Mac has only USB-C ports. Or, if you wanted to charge your iPhone from the Mac's wall charger and cable, you can't.

Apple has fragmented earphones as well, by supporting different ports on the iPhone and Mac. If I wanted to buy wired headphones to use with my iPhone, they'll have a Lightning port, so they won't work with my Mac. And vice-versa: if I was buying headphones primarily to use with my Mac, they'll have a USB-C or 3.5mm jack, neither of which works with the iPhone [1].

Apple should fix this mess by completely getting rid of Lightning. iDevices should just use USB-C. It's almost as small as Lightning. Maybe there was a reason for Apple to have created Lightning many years back, when micro USB wasn't reversible, and full-sized USB was too big. But now USB-C exists and does the same things as Lightning (reversible) in a connector practically the same size. In today's world, it no longer makes sense for Apple to stick with Lightning.

Coming to the Mac, Apple should just replace all USB-A and old Thunderbolt ports (the ones shaped like Mini DisplayPort) with USB-C. Just update all the Macs that still use these old ports. Or discontinue ones that Apple is not willing to update like, say, the Mac Pro. Either way, just stop selling products that use these old ports. The longer Apple ships these old ports, the longer they're creating problems for their own customers. When someone buys a Mac with an old Thunderbolt port, say, they may buy accessories and adapters for that port for years, so it's a long-term problem, like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Just stop selling devices with old ports like Lightning, USB-A and old Thunderbolt.

Apple should also stop selling keyboards that don't support Bluetooth, since those keyboards won't work with iPads. It makes no sense for Apple to sell keyboards that don't work with their own devices. Even if Apple switched iDevices from Lightning to USB-C, all the iDevices out there are still stuck with Lightning ports, so a keyboard that doesn't support Bluetooth won't work with them. Apple should stop selling such keyboards. Sell only Bluetooth keyboards [2].

Keyboards are an example of the larger point: any time Apple sells a peripheral, whether Apple-branded or a third-party one sold on Apple's web site, Apple should ensure that it works with all their devices. That goes for keyboards, chargers, cables, monitors, and all other devices.

[1] Apple's 3.5mm adapter doesn't work with one of my headphones — it makes tapping noises in my left year. These are the costliest headphones I own, at ₹22K, and the only noise-canceling ones, and the ones I used to use most often. As far as I'm concerned, the iPhone is a defective phone, since it doesn't work with these headphones.

[2] Keyboards that support both Bluetooth and USB-C are okay, should Apple decide to sell such a keyboard.

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