iPhone '5' Rumors: Is Apple's 'Mini Dock Connector' Actually A Thunderbolt Port? [PICTURES]

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Apple doesn't discuss products before they're ready for release, but several tech sites claim Apple has built smaller dock connectors for its new phone -- already nicknamed the iPhone 5, by many -- which would mean that Apple's sixth-generation iPhone won't be compatible with many old iPhone accessories, including external speakers, stereo systems and clock radios.

Although the form factor and actual size are still unknown, TechCrunch has independently verified that Apple is working on adding a 19-pin port, replacing the current 30-pin port, to the new iPhone, wrote TechCrunch's John Biggs. It is a move that will surely send shocks through the iPhone accessory ecosystem.

According to TechCrunch, three independent manufacturers have agreed the 19-pin port is in the works. The report did not identify the manufacturers, but one extremely interesting fact mentioned was the size of the 19-pin port: Apparently, the new mini dock connector is very similar to the size of the Thunderbolt port made available on many current MacBook laptops. That got me thinking: What if the iPhone 5 actually does have a Thunderbolt port?

Bringing The Thunder

Apple hasn't replaced the USB port yet -- the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display is compatible with USB 2.0 and 3.0 -- but it looks like Thunderbolt is becoming Apple's favorite way to sync, update and charge devices.

Thunderbolt, which was originally developed by Intel but brought to market by Apple, combines DisplayPort and PCI Express into an interface that can support a daisy chain of up to seven different Thunderbolt devices.

In a speed test, Thunderbolt smokes the competition. Thunderbolt can post a whopping 10 Gbps in simultaneous bidirectional communication, which is 20 times faster than the theoretical limit of USB 2.0, 12 times faster than FireWire 800, and twice as fast as USB 3.0. Ars Technica sums up why this is important for the iPhone:

The combination of a compact, inexpensive controller with the tiny Mini DisplayPort makes Thunderbolt particularly suited to mobile computing. In particular, thin and light ultraportable laptops like the MacBook Air and Sony Vaio S series could connect to a high-performance audio controller for recording, a RAID for nearly instantaneous backups, and an external HD monitor-all from a single port.

Not only is Thunderbolt faster than all other popular connectivity options, but it's also highly compatible with older accessories. Following WWDC 2012, Apple released two adapters for Thunderbolt: one for gigabit ethernet, and one for Firewire.

Breaking From Tradition Is Tradition

For the first iPod, Apple's dock connector relied on FireWireconnection to update the device while recharging the battery. This changed in the third-generation of iPods, which opened up compatibility for both FireWire and USB connectivity. FireWire was eventually phased out as the iPod evolved and video was added.

If TechCrunch is correct about the mini dock connector -- which is very likely, given the multitude of rumors on the subject -- then many accessories that have been compatible with all previous iPhones may not work with the iPhone 5. The list includes many charging cradles, car accessories, gorgeous and expensive speaker systems, and unfortunately, most iHome products. Essentially, any accessory that can plug into the bottom of your current iPhone -- whether it's an iPhone, iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4, or 4S -- probably won't work with the next iPhone.

As one would expect, Apple's apparent decision to make old iPhone accessories obsolete has angered many customers.

Are standards just too easy for Apple to use? asked Calob Horton, a writer for a mobile technology blog called Pocketables. Does the company feel the need to create its own, proprietary hardware to feel special, more profitable or even more popular? I understand the lust Apple has towards thinness and being able to cram more tech into a small package, but it can be achieved without its own port designs that can make the devices incompatible with other companies' products.

But don't be too surprised if you see Apple change up its connector dock. Even without the connector dock, new iPods and iPhones routinely upgrade specs, add accessories or make old models obsolete. It's part of Apple's planned obsolescence, but it's also part of moving technology forward. If there's a better, more useful technology, Apple wants it, as it should. And it's not just Apple, either; almost every electronics manufacturer you can think of sells products with built-in obsolescence. Companies are constantly introducing new formats -- we've gone from tapes to CDs to digital in about 20 years -- which forces people to buy new accessories to consume their music, TV shows and movies.

Don't fret if the new dock connector is a Thunderbolt port, or something else entirely.

If Apple wants to slim down the iPhone's form factor, changing the dock is necessary for thinness' sake. But knowing Apple, there is a legitimate reason for the design change. Considering how the iPhone 5 is supposed to be significantly different from all previous iPhones, breaking from the traditional design -- in the same way Apple broke from the old MacBook Pro designs to build the new one -- is necessary in order to build something completely new and great.

iPhone 5: Other Features To Look Forward To

LTE Connectivity: Despite the significantly higher download and upload speeds of LTE, previous implementations of the high-speed network in smartphones ravaged battery life, which was a major complaint from users. If Apple wanted LTE in the iPhone 4S, it would have been forced to increase the phone's thickness to accommodate a larger circuit board and a bigger battery. As Apple CEO Tim Cook noted in a company earnings conference call in April 2011, first-generation LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises.

But now, with new LTE chips from Qualcomm now available, it's a foregone conclusion that Apple will implement radio bands for 4G LTE in the iPhone '5', given that Apple introduced the high-speed network on its new iPad, released March 16. Since LTE in tablets isn't a feature users were breaking down doors for, its implementation was likely done as a practice run.

NFC: Near-Field Communication is nothing new. In fact, many current smartphones have the chip built-in so owners can use mobile payments solutions like Google Pay. Apple has held off on implementing NFC technology into its iPhone, but a slew of recently granted patents seem to suggest that will change with the sixth-generation model. Two of the major features said to use NFC rather heavily are the iWallet, and iTunes Gifting.

The iWallet: If you saw Apple announce iOS 6 at WWDC, you may have heard about a new application called Passbook, which is designed to keep all of your gift cards, coupons and tickets all in one place. With a simple flick, users can summon their Starbucks cards, loyalty cards, train tickets, plane tickets and sporting event tickets, too. While Passbook will work on every iOS device, Apple has reportedly been building an expansion of this software specifically for an NFC-capable iPhone.

Apple won a major patent on March 6 for a piece of technology called the iWallet, which is a digital system that gives users complete control over their subsidiary financial accounts on their iPhones, and also leverages Near-Field Communication technology to complete credit card transactions directly on the phone as well. The iWallet has many different features, including giving users the ability to see their entire credit card profiles, view statements and messages from their banks, and even set parental controls for their children, should they also want to use their iPhones as digital wallets. Outside of the iPhone, users can keep track of their payments and statements within the iTunes billing system, which keeps credit card information and records safe and secure. There's a possibility that iWallet could also work with other Apple utilities, which could allow users to buy things like movie tickets directly within the apps, but only time will tell with that one.

iTunes Gifting: Speaking of NFC... Another Apple patent unveiled in April described a system for standardized buying, sending, and receiving of media files from a media provider (iTunes) between multiple devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPodTouchs). The process was simply called, Gifting, and it would certainly work with an NFC-capable iPhone.

Downloading and storing digital media with online service providers has become commonplace -- more so than purchasing DVDs and CDs at physical stores - but it's not very easy to transfer digital files from one individual to another, usually because of copyright laws. Apple believes Gifting is the solution.

One method for gifting requires the sender to authorize a gift charge to their iTunes account, which is then transmitted from the sender's device to the receiver's device -- via tapping, or as long as they're nearby -- thanks to the NFC chip. If the recipient of the gift isn't nearby -- or you want it to be a surprise -- the gift-giver may submit an official request with iTunes, which then processes the request and charges the initiator's account for the given file. The patent also allows for multiple gifts to be sent in a single transaction, as well as certain customization options for the gifts -- including voice greetings and custom gift images, likely to conceal the gift's identity before the receipient opens it.

Advanced Haptics: Microsoft just stepped its game up with the Surface tablet, featuring a touch-sensitive keyboard built directly into the tablet's protective cover. New ways of interacting with the screen are all the rage -- haptics companies are springing up, and styluses are even making a comeback -- and it seems Apple is already on the bandwagon.

A recently published Apple patent describes a new haptics feedback system that allows a user to interact with the content on the screen by touching it, which is accomplished with sensors and actuators working simultaneously. The new multi-tiered system is extremely sophisticated: Using several layers of elastic screens stacked on top of each other, Apple's screen can produce 3D buttons or objects to interact with, as well as give texture to images, like topographical maps.

Crack-Proof Glass: Everyone who's ever had a rough Saturday night would certainly love this patent. Granted on Nov. 15, Apple's patent for crack-resistant glass uses the same alumino silicate glass solution used in the iPhone 4 and 4S, but chemically treats it with potassium and sodium ions to achieve greater compression thresholds on the surface and edges of the glass, making it less susceptible to cracks.

Apple also included a handy feature that will appeal to everyone who's ever dropped their iPhone: The patent calls for a shock mount to be placed between the glass and the body of the device, which will instantly inflate if the device senses it's falling. If the iPhone's internal accelerometer senses it's falling, an actuator within the device sucks in the cover glass as it accelerates to the ground, protecting it from damage.

OLED Display: Apple is reportedly testing the iPhone 5 prototype with an A5X chip, which is the quad-core graphics processor used to power the Retina Display in the new iPad. But why would Apple need such a powerful chip for an iPhone? Given that the A5X chip is a graphics powerhouse, if Apple doesn't drastically change the physical size of the screen to 4.6 inches, it may be changing the display's overall quality.

Apple has plenty of money to afford OLED screens in an iPhone-sized display, and it would make sense for Apple to ask Samsung to help build its iPhone 5 displays. Samsung knows how to build big, beautiful screens for any size device: Just imagine what Samsung could do with Apple's Retina technology implemented into an OLED. Apple would effectively put distance between the iPhone and all other smartphone competitors for another five years, at the very least.

Apple Avatars: If you want to buy movies, apps, or any content through Apple's iTunes Store or App Store, Apple requires you have an Apple ID. Your Apple ID sticks with you in the company's Game Center, which keeps track of a user's achievements across purchased and downloaded games. But if this recently granted patent has any bearing on the immediate future, Apple users may soon get to make customizable Apple Avatars, which users would use to represent themselves within potential online or gaming environments. Apple users could create a 3D model of themselves, customizing features like hair, eyes, nose, and eyebrows, as well as other features and accessories. While avatars seem to be geared towards kids, it would actually help give users a source of identity while making the Apple brand -- and identification procedures -- a little more fun. Don't be surprised if Apple had Pixar's help on this one: Just look at the eyes.

Multi-Player Gaming: The iPhone 5 might also be the first phone to feature a new piece of software for multi-player gaming. On March 15, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that describes a system for multi-player gaming, which allows groups of people to play the same game together and even see it from different perspectives according to the devices' physical relation to one another. The system actually mimics that of the Find My Friends app, in which a user's device detects other nearby devices that it recognizes as friends, and invites them all to join a common application. The technology also determines the relative position of those devices, so some games -- like turn-based role-playing games or card games -- can be played in a specific order.

3D Photography: While existing 3D cameras and video recorders can gather three-dimensional information from objects, they're generally incapable of getting detailed enough information in relation to the shapes, surfaces and depth of the objects. Apple's solution involves a series of systems, tools and methods to capture a 3D image by using multiple sensors and cameras. One sensor would capture a polarizing image, while two other sensors would capture two different non-polarizing images, and Apple's system would combine the images into a composite.

3D Object Recognition: On May 10, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a series of Apple patents relating to 3D face and object recognition technology. Apple's system involves taking a picture -- either with a front or rear camera -- and the 3D recognition software would distinguish between the two-dimensional projection of the image and the three-dimensional shape of the objects in the image. The process would be fully automatic, which would help for identifying faces in a group of objects, or even identifying objects in X-ray images.

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