This weekend, my colleague Jordan Kahn broke the news that “accessory makers plan to tap Apple Watch’s hidden port for battery straps and faster charging,” which is entirely true based on already-expressed developer interest. There is indeed a six-pin port nestled inside one of the watch band recesses, completely covered with a metal panel to obscure its functionality. Unfortunately, Jordan’s story has been picked up elsewhere to support the claim that the hidden port will be “a goldmine for accessory makers.” I hate to take issue with these reports, as the concept — exploiting a hidden port to make new accessories — is exciting, but I have one word for people who are planning to build or buy accessories reliant upon that port:
Stop before you spend $250 to order an accessory that might never arrive or work properly. Stop before you spend $250,000 to build an accessory that might never ship, or might ship and then stop working.
The Apple Watch is not the first Apple product with an undocumented connector. There’s a very good reason the hidden port is there — and it’s not for accessories. I’ll explain below…
You don’t see hidden connectors on iPads, iPhones, iPods, or Macs because they don’t need them. Each of these devices has at least one obvious data and charging connector that can be used for diagnostic purposes on an as-needed basis. Most of Apple’s devices are now capable of operating wirelessly, but they’ve always had wired connectivity as a backup.
The Apple Watch is different. It has literally no user-facing wired connectivity option. Once it leaves the factory, it communicates 100% wirelessly, and even its charger uses an indirect, inductive technology. The hidden port inside the watch band recess wasn’t designed to be accessed by users; as shown in the image below, even the teardown geniuses at iFixit couldn’t initially figure out how to open the port’s compartment without using an unusual tri-blade screwdriver tip and poking at it from the opposite side. Apple clearly doesn’t want customers to access it.
While conspiracy theorists will come up with all sorts of explanations for a hidden port, the two key reasons for the Apple Watch to have it are for diagnostics and performing guaranteed reliable firmware updates. A wired data and power connection can bring a dead Watch back to life if it refuses to communicate wirelessly or inductively charge; it can also be much faster for installing Watch OS before the Watch leaves the factory, or reinstalling fresh software when a Watch comes in for refurbishment.
Hidden ports have a rich history of tantalizing users without actually delivering value. For instance, 30 years after Nintendo hid an expansion port underneath the original Nintendo Entertainment System, YouTube users were still releasing videos like “The NES Expansion Port: Exposed!!!” — even though the port was never really used for anything. Nintendo built similar ports into later consoles, but they were rarely used, and even when they were, the accessories weren’t great.
This isn’t the first Apple product with an obscure port, either: Apple TVs have had them for eight years now. The original Apple TV had a full-sized USB port on the back, while the second- and third-generation Apple TVs have micro-USB ports on their backs. Apple didn’t publicize their existence, and when asked, explained that they were included solely for service and diagnostic reasons. Hackers figured out how to use the original Apple TV’s USB port for certain accessories, but had no luck with the sequels; the micro-USB ports are mostly there to restore the Apple TVs’ firmware in emergencies.
Similar “cat-and-mouse games” between enthusiastic developers and Apple have been going on for years. Even before the iPhone was jailbroken, creating an alternative/unauthorized app and accessory ecosystem, companies including Griffin injected iPods with unsanctioned software to make their FM transmitter and radio attachments more intuitive. As noble as the developers’ original intentions may have been, all of these stories ended the same way: Apple shut them down, typically rendering the unauthorized apps and accessories completely unusable on newer or OS-updated devices.
How is Apple going to handle attempts to use the Apple Watch’s hidden port for accessories? If history’s any guide, not well: if the port was intended to be developer- or user-accessible, it would have said so already. Before iOS, Apple used to quietly reach out to certain developers to warn them that their hacks would soon stop working. But now every new iOS version arrives with the implicit understanding that previously-exploited hacks will be broken — follow the rules, or else. So unless Apple wants to encourage developer experimentation with a port it deliberately covered up, something similar is going to happen with the Apple Watch.
There’s a clear lesson here for consumers: it’s not safe to invest your money in Apple accessories dependent upon a hidden port. Under the best circumstances, the accessory will work when it shows up, but carry the risk of not working at some point in the future. If you’re really unlucky, your money will go towards funding a project that will be abandoned midway through development.
For now, my advice is to hold off. Wait to see what Apple authorizes, if anything. Faster Apple Watch charging and more sophisticated wristbands will certainly come in the future, but that port is currently hidden for a good reason: it’s not meant to be used yet. If you want to start accessorizing your Watch with something electronic, there are plenty of Apple Watch-compatible Bluetooth earphones and cool charging docks to consider.