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How and Why Apple Could Be Ditching the Dock Connector

By Wesley Fenlon

iPhone owners won't be happy when their docks become outdated, but a smaller connector would give Apple wiggle room within the cramped iPhone and conveniently allow the company to push AirPlay adoption.

Every millimeter of space inside a smartphone is precious. Apple's already cut SIM card support down to the not-so-common Micro-SIM. There just wasn't room for a full-size SIM, they said! What could be next? As Apple makes room for new hardware in the iPhone's future--such as an LTE radio--other internal components may find themselves on the chopping block. Apple blog iMore claims the company has its sights set on one of the iPhone's oldest components: the Dock Connector.

According to the rumor, Apple is considering an end to the 30-pin connector as we know it. The next iPhone will have a smaller dock, which will grant Apple useful room inside the phone's casing. Why would they ditch the decade-old connector in favor of something new? Simple: with the arrival of iOS 5, the iPhone barely needs to be connected to other devices anymore.

iOS 5 introduced wireless syncing and OTA updates to the iPhone. Music can be transferred from iTunes to phone, no cables attached. Future software updates can go directly to phones without passing through a computer. Activation no longer requires a PC or Mac. And those aren't even the biggies: iCloud and AirPlay matter most of all.

With iCloud, Apple hopes to make all your data available on all your (Apple) devices at any time. No wires needed, there. And with AirPlay, Apple's building a network of accessories that can talk without wires. The wireless streaming technology hasn't hit its prime yet. iOS5 introduced AirPlay mirroring only a few months ago and the upcoming OS X Mountain Lion will bring that functionality to Macs this summer. That network is also a profit center: Apple makes money on every AirPlay license sold.

The company's precedent for coldly dropping old technology makes this believable, even if it would involve cutting off a decade's worth of accessories.

Back to that 30-pin dock connector: does it have a future? Say Apple adopts a mini dock that takes up 25 percent of the space of its existing connector. Who does that affect? Anyone who buys an iPhone will get a new USB cable that charges the phone no problem and still works with any USB device on the planet.

The iDevice accessory market will be in danger, as all of their devices will suddenly be outdated. Aside from customer backlash, that's a win/win for Apple: they can sell a new 30-pin adapter to keep those devices relevant, and they can pressure everyone developing iGear to adopt AirPlay and pony up the cash for licensing fees. Apple makes more money and grows support of its wireless ecosystem at the same time.

If the next iPhone adopts a new Dock Connector, the rest of Apple's hardware lineup will have to follow. The company's precedent for coldly dropping old technology makes this believable, even if it would involve cutting off a decade's worth of accessories. The trend will likely continue this year, even if the iPhone 5 doesn't drop its dock connector. The MacBook Pro's yearly refresh is rumored to be a more significant overhaul in 2012, with the popular form factor of the MacBook Air potentially expanding into larger size notebooks.

2011's systems marked their own downsizing of sorts with the Thunderbolt connector, which saves space by supporting both Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt data transfers. On Thursday, AppleInsider discovered an Apple patent exploring new types of keyboards for thin-profile computing devices. The support lever keyboard system described in the patent could require a key travel range of as little as .2 millimeters.

With Apple TV due for a refresh this year, Apple can hype 2012 as the year AirPlay surpasses the physical connection. And they'll be right, if the physical connection suddenly requires a $15 adapter.