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Details that count: Apple's obsession with reversible cable connectors

Marco Tabini | Aug. 25, 2014
It's been nearly impossible over the last few weeks to avoid hearing that Apple is reportedly working on a Lightning cable with a reversible USB connector--that is, a connector that will fit into a USB port no matter which direction you plug it in.

It's been nearly impossible over the last few weeks to avoid hearing that Apple is reportedly working on a Lightning cable with a reversible USB connector — that is, a connector that will fit into a USB port no matter which direction you plug it in.

Leaving aside the fact that Apple-related rumors are a dime a dozen and tend to be about as reliable as horse-racing tips, you may wonder what all the hubbub is about. Sure, not having to "find the right way" to insert a USB cable is convenient, but it seems hardly worth so much press. So what's the big deal? 

A healthy obsession

Apple's fixation with custom ports and cabling protocols is legendary — and possibly only second to the company's compulsive fondness for keeping the number of buttons on its mobile devices down to a minimum. It goes all the way back to the Apple IIGS, when co-founder Steve Wozniak himself designed the Apple Desktop Bus, a communication protocol that allowed several serial peripherals — keyboards, mice, and printers, for example — to be daisy-chained together.

Whereas most serial ports of the time used 9-pin D-Sub connectors, ADB relied on the rather uncommon 4-pin mini-DIN, starting a tradition that would see Apple continuously reinvent its cables using increasingly sophisticated and customized connectors, all the way down to today's Lightning standard.

It's easy to come to the conclusion that Apple's primary reason for constantly reinventing the wheel is one of pure greed. After all, custom connectors translate into the ability to control the third-party accessory market, and levy hefty royalties on the end customers.

I'm sure that the folks in Cupertino aren't sorry that their custom connectors are a (probably very profitable) source of income for the company, but a purely cynical perspective doesn't explain some of the key usability aspects of Lightning cables, such as the fact it will work no matter how you plug it into an iPhone or iPad, or the need for Apple to create a reversible USB plug — which, after all, must still be compatible with normal USB ports.

Learning to be helpful

If you dabble in product design, you've probably heard of a concept in cognitive psychology called learned helplessness. The great Don Norman, in his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, describes the importance of this concept in the way people interact with products:

With badly designed objects — constructed so as to lead to misunderstanding — faulty mental models, and poor feedback, no wonder people feel guilty when they perceive (even if incorrectly) that nobody else is having the same problem.

 

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