eli5: How did we go from every phone company having it’s own proprietary cable type, to having only 2?


I remember it used to be that every cellphone company had their own different standard. One for Nokia, etc.
Now there are just 2/3. USB C, micro usb And lightning.
What prompted the change?

In: 9

USB C is an evolution of the micro and USB A USB C is a much better cable and Apples lightening cable is so they can be different and force extra products on you.

the European Union is pushing through legislation that every new phone must be chargeable by usb c by autumn 2024.

android had a lot of features for usb built in, like on the go connections etc, charging standards, headphone audio, debugging and file transfers, etc. so it made sense to use a usb port on your Android phone, which since it could charge, made sense to be the charging port.

Google now requires new phones to have usb-c power delivery capabilities if the phone wants to use Google services.

this makes the landscape: Android and competitors. the only competitors, Apple, do use a different standard, because of course they do. that’s likely to change in the near future, however. there’s rumours they might even get rid of the plugin port entirely

Originally they were just charging cables.

Then they were required to carry small amounts of data when the need to backup phones came about with the addition of emails on phones, cameras/photos on phones etc. This resulted in phone companies making their own cables, but with usb on one end for connecting to computers.

As phones became more like computers, and things like digital cameras became more mainstream with mini and micro USB, it made more sense for these kinds cables to be used with phones to reduce costs. Both of the cables themselves and of the drivers etc.

The majority of phone manufacturers (and Microsoft Phone / Android operating systems) went this way, adopting newer and faster USB standards, as phone size and data transfer speeds developed.

Apple went their own way with proprietary cables and connectors. Sometimes ahead, and sometimes behind USB in terms of data speeds, security, convenience etc. Apple were also able to charge more for these cables as they held the exclusive patent rights (profit!) and license the design out to third parties to make stereos, docks, alarm clocks etc (profit!) that supported Apple iphones etc. All of which justified them having their own bespoke design.

There are several considerations when interoperable solutions become available to manufacturers, including cost, design and profitability.

The switch to USB in the majority of phones did not happen overnight. Some manufacturers wanted their phones to be slimmer, and mini USB was too large. Some understood that their proprietary cables would earn them more money when their customers needed replacements (most would cost cents to make but we’re sold for $15-20).

Most manufacturers switched to USB when they saw the market pushing for it. Potential customers would factor the connector type into their decision to purchase. Competitors with interoperable charging/data transfer solutions were gaining market share, demand dropped for phones with proprietary connectors and R&D for proprietary connectors would cost more than implementing a proven standard.

Apple are, of course, an exception to the rule. They gained enormous amounts of market share for the iPod years before the iPhone was announced. They had licensed the connector to many third parties for accessories (e.g. speaker docks). When the iPhone came out, it could continue to work with those accessories if it kept the connector, and Apple could keep making money from licensing. Apple kept a very high market share on smartphones throughout the years and wished to keep making money from licenses even when it needed a new, faster and lower profile connector, hence why Lightning was developed.

This kind of standardization is an easy way to keep production costs down. Instead of designing my own socket, cable, and charger, I can use existing sockets, cables, and chargers. This saves design expenses, is cheaper due to mass production, and is something the customer is already familiar with (and they love that they can swap/reuse chargers from other phones). Big selling points!

Meanwhile, making your own charger at this point makes a phone more expensive and provides zero benefit (and a significant amount of negative aspects).