If you bought yourself an iPhone 5, and are looking for a cheap, third-party lightning adapter to save a couple of bucks, you might want to hold off. There's an authenticator chip in the official adapters, and third-party adapters probably won't work without it.
Peter from Double Helix Cables found the obnoxious little chip while dissecting one of the new, official Lighting cables. Positioned between the cord's USB contact and the power pin on the Lightning plug, the chip seems to be the key to keeping Lighting cables and adapters proprietary. These kind of authentication chips aren't uncommon in more sophisticated accessories, but this is the first time one has shown up in something as basic as a charging cable, smack in the middle of the power line. According the Peter, the chip doesn't block the data lines, but you need data and power to connect by USB. That could mean any number of things.
This could mean that it's less nefarious than a authentication system, that it's just for power regulation - but it looks like a serious microcontroller of some sort, it doesn't look like a garden variety voltage regulator that I've ever seen. It has a mirror-finish shiny metal exterior with lasered numbers on it, it does not look like a generic black IC. If it really costs $3.50 for a lightning plug, then it could be something quite high tech. Whatever it is, it's expensive and highly miniaturized. And the cable isn't going to function without it, that I can tell at this point.
"There is basically no way [third-party adapters] are functional cables," Peter told Apple Insider. "You can't just build a Lightning cable by making something with the same shape and connectivity." That means that all those third-party connectors out there will fit the ports on your devices, sure, but they probably aren't going to actually work. What looks like a $10, $20, or $30 savings could very well wind up being a waste, so if you're in a hurry, official adapters are probably the best bet.
If you aren't, you can sit tight and see if someone can figure out how to fake those chips, but it could wind up being pretty difficult. Peter put it this way in an email to us:
It remains to be seen whether the chip can be reverse engineered. Nobody that I know of managed to crack the MFi program before, since digital Apple docks and other MFi certified stuff were always quite costly and only coming from well established name brands that participated in the program. I never saw any off brand, super cheap version of the iPod USB digital audio interfaces that cost hundreds of dollars. If the chip has some code on board that makes it authenticate with the iPhone, then it may be hard to duplicate for sure. If it's doing a "smart" function like pin assignment or something crazy like that, then it definitely is going to be mandatory. Apple has said it's a "smart" connector but it is horrifying that just a basic power charging/sync cord like this requires additional complexity. But until some serious engineers figure out exactly what the chips do (MFi people are under NDA so I don't think they can tell us without breaking NDA) then it remains open for debate why this cable is like this.
It could take some serious engineering brain-power to get to the bottom of what this chip is actually doing. Until then, first-party is the only surefire option. [Apple Insider, Peter (Double Helix Cables)]