Home History of Apple Technology History of Apple Proprietary Ports

History of Apple Proprietary Ports

by Dewi Safitri


Today we’re going to explore the history of Apple’s proprietary ports. If you don’t know what proprietary technology is, it’s anything a company invents and only uses on their products. 

So through the years, Apple has featured quite a few different ports and connectors in their products. From USB in their older computers to the lightning connector in today’s iPhones. But most of the controversy surrounding Apple ports stems from their long history with proprietary technology. But even switching ports on new products is enough to ruffle some feathers.

Through this article, we’ll discuss three connectors: Thunderbolt, Lightning, and Magsafe. But also talk about some controversial transitions from one technology to another. For example, in 2016, Apple switched to USB-C ports in their MacBook Pro and removed every other port previously available. 

USB-A was gone, HDMI was gone, and the SD card slot was gone. And the absence of these ports is why most people had a problem with the 2016 MacBook Pro, despite USB-C being an industry-standard port rather than a proprietary one, many people thought it was a step backward. Skeptics felt that Apple got rid of all those ports to boost sales of their expensive adapters, but others feel it was what had to be done to keep moving the industry forward.

Many consumers consider the removal of the SD card slot to be one of the biggest detriments to the MacBook Pro line. Photographers, especially, say the lack of an SD card slot has hindered their ability to quickly transfer photos from their camera to their computer, and that the SD card adapter was too cumbersome to use. But Apple disagreed. Since they feel that the future of data transfer is wireless. But this is only the latest example of Apple removing ports. Back in 2008, consumers noticed there was no longer a FireWire port on the MacBook or the MacBook Air, although the MacBook Pro at the time still had it. 

Now the FireWire port was used for connecting camcorders, external hard drives, and other devices to your MacBook. But in its place, Apple featured a faster USB port, called USB 3.0, and also a new connection called Thunderbolt, which Apple developed in partnership with Intel. It combined PCI Express and Displayport into a single connection and it was introduced in 2011, with the MacBook Pro line being the first computer to utilize this new technology. But the change was not immediately noticeable by some consumers as the port looked very similar to its predecessor, except for a “thunderbolt” icon next to it.

In June 2013, the second-generation Thunderbolt 2 was released. And again, this port was the first feature in the MacBook Pro line. The 2013 Retina MacBook Pro was the first product to contain Thunderbolt 2 ports, and others soon followed. Thunderbolt 2 had a 20 Gbit/s transfer rate, compared to the first generation Thunderbolt’s 10 Gbit/s, although the bandwidth of both the first and second-generation Thunderbolt ports was the same. 

Now, this was a great upgrade since users were now able to transfer a 4K video while simultaneously playing it on an external monitor. Something impossible before Thunderbolt 2. Another advantage was that the port was backward compatible, so all Thunderbolt 2 cables could be used with the original Thunderbolt 1 ports. Now I should mention that Apple wasn’t the first company to feature Thunderbolt 2 in a product. Asus created the first notebook to utilize Thunderbolt 2, and then on October 22, 2013, Apple released their Retina MacBook Pro, which included two Thunderbolt 2 ports.

Now in December 2013, various machines were released with the upgraded Thunderbolt 3 port. These included PC notebooks running Microsoft Windows, motherboards, and a 0.5m Thunderbolt 3 passive USB-C cable. It wasn’t until October of 2016 that Apple announced the updated MacBook Pro, which included two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports, depending on the model. In June 2017, new iMac models featuring two Thunderbolt 3 ports were introduced, as well as the iMac Pro, which had four. 

Now compared to Thunderbolt 2, Thunderbolt 3 doubled the bandwidth to 40 Gbit/s, cut power consumption in half, and could simultaneously drive two external 4K displays at 60 Hz or a single external 4K display at 120 Hz. By 2013, the FireWire Port was eliminated from all Mac computers, and replaced by the faster and more capable Thunderbolt 3 port.

But there were issues with Thunderbolt connectors. Since it is a high-speed expansion bus, Thunderbolt is potentially vulnerable to both direct memory access attacks and Option ROM attacks. If a user extends the PCI Express bus with Thunderbolt, it allows for very low-level access to the computer. Because of this, attackers can physically attach malicious devices which could potentially bypass almost all security measures implemented on the operating system, allowing a potential attacker to read and write system memory. Also, when a computer with Thunderbolt boots up, it loads and executes Option ROMs from other attached devices. 

A malicious Option ROM could potentially allow malware to execute before the operating system is started, invading the kernel, logging keystrokes, and stealing encryption keys. Because it is easy to connect Thunderbolt devices to notebooks, this makes the environment ideal for malicious software attacks. But Apple’s knack for proprietary ports isn’t limited to their Macs. 

The company has also introduced a few proprietary connectors to their handheld devices like the iPod and iPhone. The iPod featured a 30-pin connector which was introduced in 2003 with the third-generation iPod classic. This replaced the FireWire port and was on the bottom of the device instead of the top. Now the 30-pin connector was used on dozens of devices for the next eleven years. 

Including the iPod nano, iPod touch, and iPhone. But there was a big drawback to this connector, and that was its size. You see, all of Apple’s devices were shrinking with each new generation, and the 30-pin connector was taking up valuable real estate that could be used for other internal electronics and components. So on September 12, 2012, Apple replaced the 30-pin connector on the iPhone 5 with the Lightning connector. 

Their justification for this was to make the iPhone 5 as thin and small as customers wanted, Apple had to use a smaller, more compact connector.

But there were plenty of people who weren’t happy with the change, and some had hoped Apple would adopt the industry-standard MicroUSB on the iPhone, but instead were disappointed to see the release of yet another proprietary connector. 

Now the Lightning port and connector use eight pins instead of the previous 30 pins, and it had the added benefit of being reversible. But there was a big issue during the transition between the previous 30-pin connector and the new lightning connector. And it had to do with accessories. Millions of customers had accumulated different docks, speakers, and cables that were made to work with the 30-pin connector. And that meant their new iPhone 5 wasn’t compatible with their collection of accessories, and this sparked quite a bit of outrage. 

Especially after they heard that Apple’s solution to this problem was a $29 adapter that converted the 30-pin port to the new Lightning port. But again, this was yet another cost that customers believed they shouldn’t have to pay when purchasing an expensive new device. Many people thought Apple should’ve included at least one adapter with the iPhone 5, but that never happened. 

Now although this transition didn’t go smoothly, the Lightning port has become standard on Apple’s mobile devices including the iPod touch, iPad, iPhone, and AirPods. Another change that caused perhaps even more outrage than the Lightning connector, was the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7. It was the first smartphone ever made to not include a headphone jack, and it came as a shock since no one expected Apple to make such a move. 

Now Apple likely anticipated the backlash that their decision would cause, so this time, they included 3.5mm to lightning adapters with every iPhone 7 so customers could still connect their favorite headphones to their new iPhone. But for many customers, this didn’t address the wide range of functionality that the headphone jack provided. Also, it wouldn’t be possible to charge the iPhone while listening to music, since the lightning port would be occupied by the headphones. 

When asked why they decided to remove the headphone jack, Apple claimed it was necessary to make room for the Haptic feedback engine. But some customers believed Apple had ulterior motives. Because the AirPods were introduced alongside the iPhone 7, it kind of made sense for Apple to boost their AirPod sales by removing the headphone jack from their new iPhone.

If that was part of their plan, then it worked very well, since the AirPods have been selling way beyond market expectations since their release. Now the last thing we’ll discuss is the MagSafe connector which was introduced on January 10, 2006. This was an amazing connector that used to be a pretty big selling point for Apple’s notebooks. 

MagSafe was a power connector that attached magnetically, and would safely disconnect if accidentally tugged or pulled, preventing your expensive MacBook Pro from being yanked to the ground because someone tripped over the power cable. Now, this idea was borrowed from power connectors used for countertop cooking appliances in Japan. But that wasn’t the only cool feature of MagSafe. 

Because of the magnet, users no longer had to search around for the port while connecting the cable, since the magnet quickly pulled the connector into place. And MagSafe was reversible. Now MagSafe 2 was introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference on July 11, 2012, and the connector was made thinner for use on the new MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

While the MagSafe connector was easy to use, it did have its share of issues. For example, the plug could easily fray and separate from the cord, the transformer itself could short out, and the pins on the connector could lose elasticity over time. This led to customers wrapping the cable with either tape or protective plastic in an attempt to make it more durable.

Now although MagSafe is probably one of Apple’s best connectors, they decided to replace it with USB-C. Let’s point out a common theme that was shared across almost all the transitions we discussed. And that is simplicity. With every new product Apple creates, they strive to make it even simpler for customers, and even easier to use. Take the MacBook Pro for example. 

It began as a notebook with an array of different ports and connectors and slots, but today features just one type of port: USB-C. And this means you can power your MacBook Pro using any port and you don’t have to compromise on thinness because Apple is trying to fit in a bunch of extra ports that you don’t even use. What’s your tought about this controversial topic? Please leave your comment down below!


Dewi Safitri

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