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New iPhone Plug Spells Inconvenience For Users, Change For Accessory Makers

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I kind of think of Philz Coffee in Palo Alto, Calif., as the epicenter of Apple fanatics. It's so hip, only hand-poured specialty blends are sold here.

Every day dozens of techie types come to Philz for coffee and then lounge around on the leather sofa sipping away, often with Apple products scattered in front of them.

Yeliz Ustabas has an Apple laptop perched next to her and an iPhone balanced on her knee.

Normally, Ustabas says she's pretty quick to buy the latest thing Apple has to offer. But this morning, before Apple unveiled the iPhone 5, she said this time she might wait to purchase the new smartphone.

"For now, the 4S seems better. So I am going to wait a little bit I guess," Ustabas said.

The reason is the new phone's new connector. Since its debut five years ago, all iPhones have used the same kind of port for charging and docking. An entire industry of iPhone accessories has grown up around this simple little plug.

Scores of different companies sell speakers — docking stations, adapters for car radios and chargers — and they were all built for the old plug. And these iPhone accessories are big business. Michael Morgan, who follows the industry for ABI Research, says sales of accessories total $5 billion to $10 billion a year.

Not all iPhone accessories will have to be redesigned because of the new plug and cord — old headphones and speakers that use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to connect are fine — but pretty much everything else will need to be tweaked or require an adapter to work.

Now Apple is making these adapters, but true Apple freaks will need dozens. If you have built your electronic life around an iPhone that could be kind of annoying — and expensive.

"If you are on the road and you are traveling, it's just another thing to get lost," says Andrea Seebaum, an iPhone user in San Francisco.

But Apple didn't make this change just to mess with you. Morgan says there are good reasons Apple changed this little plug.

"They held out for five years. You might say they were due," he says.

A smaller plug makes room for a bigger battery. Although Apple calls the new plug the "Lightning connector," NPR's Laura Sydell, who was at the Apple event, tells me syncing your iPhone with this connection will be no faster than the older, bigger version.

The new design is 80 percent smaller and Apple says it's easier to use. (But was the old version that hard? It's a plug after all.)

Changing the cord probably made Apple's new thinner design possible but it creates an odd dynamic for consumers thinking about buying the new phone.

While the change is a headache for some consumers it's a business opportunity for accessory makers. Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told the audience in San Francisco that JBL, Bose, Bang & Olufsen and B&W are already building new speakers for the new phone.

And for those Apple fans who have to have the iPhone 5 but have lots of accessories they want to keep, Apple will sell a variety of adapters too — they'll range from $19 to $39 each.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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