Is Thunderbolt the next iDevice “Dock” connection?

Thunderbolt port. Credit: Mac 4 Ever

Thunderbolt port. Credit: Mac 4 Ever

Rumors have been circulating for the last few weeks that Apple would add a Lightpeak port to the next iPad, with most people dismissing the idea as being too soon or just plain unnecessary.

However, given the newly revealed Thunderbolt connection that will debut on the next Macbook Pro, due out sometime soon, is it possible Apple plans to use it as a replacement for the Dock connector found on every iPhone and iPad?

If it sounds like overkill, consider the following:

At various times in the past and even in current iDevices, the Dock connector has been used for

  • Connecting to something via USB to sync and charge
  • Connecting to something via Firewire to sync and charge
  • Connecting peripheral USB devices using the Camera Connection kit
  • Output of composite video
  • Output of component video
  • Output of a VGA signal (using the VGA adapter for the iPad)
  • External control of music playback using the Apple Accessory Protocol
  • Connection to 3rd party peripherals
  • Output of a line level audio signal

Quite a list of jobs for a tiny connector on a portable device, no? That list highlights one of the reasons Apple chose to use a proprietary Dock connector for their recent (2003-present) iDevices instead of a standard USB connection: it isn’t solely for charging and syncing content.

Clearly Apple thinks their iOS devices should be capable of doing all those things, and clearly Apple thinks their Thunderbolt port is good for some of those same things.

Moving toward Thunderbolt, at least as an electrical standard if not the exact same physical port found on Macbooks, would allow them to keep doing most of those things and more, while significantly increasing sync speed and offering the ability to connect multiple devices to an iPad or iPhone at the same time.

Switching to Thunderbolt on a future iPad would also bring one significant capability that some people have been asking for: an HDMI connection. Apple’s other portable Mac devices can already be used to output HDMI signals to an HDTV because of the DisplayPort connection, and Thunderbolt has one.

Some iOS games are already using the VGA connection kit to get their games onto the big screen in the living room, and HDMI would be even better.

If you aren’t sure an iPad can actually drive a big HDTV at high resolution, consider that the iPhone 4 is already driving a display at 960×640, which is awfully close to the 1280×720 resolution known as “720p”. The iPad 3 is rumored to have a “retina” display with a resolution of 2048×1536, far higher than most HDTVs can even display.

Maybe you’re thinking “but they’d be breaking backward compatibility with all those Dock accessories!”.

They’ve done it before, a few years back they changed the way the video output signals work in the dock connector, requiring people to buy new cables to work with the newer iDevices.

Other 3rd-party Dock accessories have been known to stop working with new iDevices as well, either because the newer iDevice simply won’t fit into the older accessory correctly, or because, for whatever reason, the newer iPhone simply can’t talk to the older accessory even though both are using the same connector.

Apple even built in a few special iOS alerts for cases like this, all of them with a similar message:

Not for iPhone

Not for iPhone

Apple isn’t afraid to break compatibility especially in the name of moving toward something better, and Thunderbolt is without question better.

What about charging, though? A replacement for the Dock connection has to be able to charge the iPad/iPhone doesn’t it?

This is true, and I’m not sure the existing Thunderbolt port can do that, but it’s probably too big to fit on any of the future iDevices anyway given Apple’s trend toward sleek and tiny designs, so that’s already out.

Since Apple would be looking for a new connector anyway, and the existing Dock connector is proprietary, why not go with another proprietary-but-awesome physical connector? Call it Micro Thunderbolt maybe. Include all the necessary charging pins, but maintain electrical compatibility with other Thunderbolt and Lightpeak devices.

While we’re designing a new port anyway, why not make it a “quick release” magnetic connector just like Magsafe, then it can eventually be used on portable Macs as well. That may be difficult given the number of pins involved, but apparently a 10″ 2048×1536 display is difficult too, and we’re pretty sure Apple is going to find a way to make that happen.

We’ll be waiting anxiously to see what happens next week with the iPad 2, but a drastic change like switching the Dock connection out for something better, is probably not going to happen immediately. However, later on down the road, it really does make sense.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

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  • Me

    Indeed, Apple has applied for a patent which adds a fiber optic connection within its Magsafe connector:

  • Arthur van der Harg

    Thunderbolt can’t carry enough power to charge? Device too small to have an extra connector for charging? Well, Apple has been looking at resonant inductive charging: no connector needed…

  • Arthur van der Harg

    Why would iPhones and iPads need an electrical connection to charge? Resonant inductive charging, anyone?

  • Anonymous

    “I’m not sure the existing Thunderbolt port can [charge the iPad/iPhone]”

    It can. Thunderbolt can supply 10W to downstream devices (Powered USB 3.0 can supply only 3.6W)

  • David

    Thunderbolt is only 20 pins. The dock connector is 30 pins.
    Apple wouldn’t necessarily have to create a new connector at all. They could introduce Thunderbolt over the existing dock connector and maintain backward compatibly while supporting electrical compatibility

  • Stephen Oliver

    They’d run into a situation where the same pins in the old dock connector would be used for a different purpose, and people would try to plug new cables into old devices, and old cables into new devices.

    It might cause real problems if they did that, but I did consider it.

  • Stephen Oliver

    Indeed now that Thunderbolt is fully revealed that appears to be the case