Two yet-to-be filled job listings posted in mid- to late-2011 hint at a a very specific future Apple innovation. And it’s one that has been widely speculated upon: Dock connectors.
The job postings, Connector Design Engineer and Product Design Eng – Connector, are both “responsible for managing multiple connector designs and developments in support of the iPod product lines.” The positions also entail adapting existing connectors to new technological developments and designing entirely new dock connectors specifically for the iPod line, which would logically translate to iPhones and iPads, as well.
The jobs were posted in March and September 2011, respectively, but both are currently unfilled. They require a BS in a related engineering discipline (Electrical, Mechanical or Material Science) and a few years experience with 3D CAD design and off-shore product manufacturing. The ability to speak Chinese is “a plus.”
The 30-pin dock connector on iPhones, iPads and iPods has been the de facto design since it was introduced on the third generation iPod in 2003. That’s almost as ancient as the click wheel design that debuted on the iPod in 2001.
“Apple has been using this connector for a long time and it’s always gotten reviews as being unwieldy and large and inconvenient,” IHS iSuppli analyst Kevin Keller told Wired. “If they’re going to introduce something new, the iPhone, because of the broad appeal and broad market, would be a good place to do it.”
Many feel – nay, expect – a dock connector redesign in the near future. And with good reason.
Recent photos suggest the dock connector will be shrinking in size, allowing for more space inside the device. Canalys analyst Chris Jones said that when Apple does inevitably change its dock, it will be a pain point for accessory manufacturers and users who have invested in dock accessories. But some iPhone dock manufacturers have started taking such a possibility into account with new designs aimed at future proofing peripherals.
But Apple has a unique challenge when designing its iDevice dock connectors.
“Because Apple has used that connector for video output, audio output, USB connection, and charging, they are always going to have an issue with the pin count,” Keller said. “You just simply can’t go down to a simple five pin microUSB and get the same functionality out of that connector.”
An Apple patent application published in January tries to get around that issue in a creative way. It describes a MagSafe-style dock connector, not unlike the one currently employed in MacBooks. Since Apple has a design, these engineers could ready a production version and coordinate with leads at Foxconn during the manufacturing process.
Another option open to Apple is to eventually utilize microUSB, the favorite of many Android phones and the closest thing to a standard smartphone charging port we’ve seen to date. While that implementation would be convenient for the majority of consumers, following the rest of the industry’s standards certainly isn’t the Apple way. Nor does it satisfy Apple’s preexisting dock connector needs.
“Because of the functionality Apple uses that dock connector for, there are no industry standards suitable yet,” Keller said. “They would continue to be required to use a proprietary connector. We could see a smaller version of the existing dock connector, but still proprietary to Apple.”
That poses a unique challenge to Apple’s would-be connecter engineers and an even greater headache for accessory makers and Apple consumers.