Apple might ditch the Lightning port in a future version of iPhone. The tech giant is examining ways to allow data transfer via "waveguides," using electromagnetic waves that pass through a cable to a device without needing a physical connection to a port.
Over the years, Apple has made its portable products more resilient to water damage. It officially declared the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus as the first with IP67 water and dust resistance, raising the bar to IP68 in the iPhone XS, a level expected to be maintained for the 2019 iPhones.
While the company is developing new ways to stop water and dust from getting into its mobile devices, the simplest way to do so is to reduce the number of ingress points, which means sealing up the body by removing ports and other holes. Aside from the needed holes for the speakers and microphones, iPhones are also equipped with a Lightning port.
The Lightning port provides two functions in that it can be used to provide power to recharge the iPhone's battery and can offer a data connection with a Mac or PC, or an accessory. While the charging element can be performed by wireless charging functions offered in current-generation models, a physical data connection cannot easily be replaced, making it tough to remove the port entirely.
In a patent application filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday, Apple's "Conductive Cladding for Waveguides" could provide a way for data to be transferred without a physical port.
For the purposes of the filing, a waveguide is a structure for funneling electromagnetic waves down a pathway, specifically for those that are not usually able to pass through the atmosphere efficiently, such as millimeter waves. By containing and guiding the millimeter waves, this can allow for data transfers that pass through at tens or hundreds of gigahertz, higher rates than are typically possible with conductive wires.
In order for the waveguides to work properly, they have to be positioned in such a way to match the orientation of their transmission, as well as lining up to transmit correctly to the receiving device.
To solve this, Apple suggests the waveguide created from a core of a solid dielectric material that can conduct radio waves, surrounded by a cladding that includes conductive portions that can allow electrical signals to be transmitted. Rather that for large-scale data transmission, the conductive portions and electrical signals are just used to determine the orientation of the waveguide to the receiving or transmitting device.
By using the conductive portions to determine how one end of the waveguide is attached, the other end can alter how it transmits through the waveguide. While this may be straightforward for a rectangular waveguide cable, it also means the system would work efficiently for a circular cable, which could have many segmented areas for transmission and conductive portions.
To aid alignment, magnets could also be employed to both hold the cable in place and to ensure it is placed correctly by the user in the first place.
Apple applies for patents covering a wide variety of areas on a weekly basis, but while the filings indicate areas of interest for Apple, it does not guarantee the features will appear in a future product or service.
Unsurprisingly, Apple has examined other ways to provide enhanced water resistance to its products.
Patents from 2018 covered a number of ways to prevent water entry via a Lightning-style port, generally by using elements of the connector to create the seal within the port rather than by the port itself having protective elements. Suggestions include rubber rings acting as a gasket, deformable sheathes, tapered connectors, and even a vacuum generator.
In 2015, Apple was looking into the use of self-healing elastomers to completely cover ports, relying on sections of the connector to puncture the material which then reseals upon disconnection.
Apple has also previously explored liquid resistant speaker ports, removing the acoustic elements from the equation in one 2016 patent.