If you bought a new phone, computer, game console or some other such device in the past few years, there’s a good chance that you’ve been charging it using a cable with at least one end that looks something like a squashed Tic Tac — a rectangular plug with rounded corners, about a tenth of an inch long and a third of an inch wide.
Officially, per the coalition of tech companies that determines this sort of thing, a connector of this shape is known as Universal Serial Bus Type-C. But its friends just call it USB-C — and I suspect that sooner or later we will all grow enormously friendly with this capable little cable.
USB-C’s singular selling point is universality. It was designed to plug in to more or less everything to accomplish more or less anything, thereby cutting down on the number and variety of cables one needs to navigate digital life. This may strike you as a small blessing, but these aren’t times to scoff at small blessings. Insofar as it is possible to find not just utility but something like joy in the mitigation of trivial but nevertheless regularly agonizing inconveniences of modern life, USB-C might be one of the more life-changing innovations of our age.
Techies reading this will argue I’m blowing smoke. USB-C is not even new; the first devices bearing these ports went on sale in 2015.
True, but realizing USB-C’s full potential has taken some time. The technology has had to overcome numerous technical challenges, and it has had to achieve a certain critical mass across the device ecosystem. Only this week, finally, did USB-C’s one-cable dream start to become inevitable. On Monday, in an effort to reduce electronic waste, the European Union’s member states approved a rule requiring USB-C charging ports on “all new mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, hand-held video game consoles and portable speakers, e-readers, keyboards, mice, portable navigation systems, earbuds and laptops” sold in the E.U.
The rule will phase in over a few years, but it has already achieved results with the main holdout, Apple, which had gone all-in on USB-C for its computers and tablets but stuck to its proprietary connector, called Lightning, for the iPhone. An Apple executive told an interviewer at The Wall Street Journal’s tech conference on Tuesday that even though Apple opposed the law, it would “have to comply.” It’s not clear if this means that all iPhones or just European ones will get a USB-C port. Here’s hoping it’s the former.
The European rule applies just to charging, but USB-C does much more. It is the Meryl Streep of cables, capable of playing any role better than any other choice. In addition to charging, a USB-C cable can be used to transmit video signals from your computer to your monitor or TV; to transfer huge amounts of data at blazing speeds to and from devices like cameras, external drives and other peripherals; and, perhaps best of all, to do many of these things at the same time, so that you can accomplish more than one task with one cord.
For instance, the one USB-C cable strung between my laptop and the monitor on my desk is ferrying data and power in opposite ways simultaneously — the monitor (plugged into a wall socket) is charging the laptop, while the laptop is sending images to the screen. This is far superior to HDMI, the video cable I might have used before USB-C — HDMI cannot carry enough power to charge a laptop, meaning I’d have to use it in addition to a laptop charger. In small ways like this, USB-C has lightened my load. Because a majority of my devices now use this single connector, I’ve lately found myself traveling with far fewer chargers, cables and dongles (the terrible name for the numerous adapters and other tiny devices that plug into our computers).
It’s also saved me some storage space. One weekend this summer I put on some calming music and mounted an archaeological expedition through the tangled mess of old cables stuffed in forgotten corners of my house.
My cleanup was a tortured trip through tech history. The USB standard was introduced in 1996 as a way to create compatibility among devices, but it’s striking how many varieties of USB there have been in the years since — each new one undermining the goal of standardization. First there was the classic, full-size USB — that ubiquitous rectangular plug about the size of the end of your thumb. Then we had USB-B (a square-ish plug found often on printers), followed by Mini-USB and Micro-USB, the tiny plugs found on many non-Apple devices since the 2000s. Amazingly, through all these versions, designers repeated the same flaw — every variety of USB until USB-C could be plugged in only if it faced the correct direction, making charging anything in the dark a furiously fiddly process. (USB-C, like Lightning, is symmetrical, so you can plug it in in any direction.)
Perhaps the biggest mess was in TVs and computer monitors, where new cables came seemingly every few years. When I was a kid you connected a TV to a VCR or Nintendo using RCA cables (a braid of two or three colored round plugs). Then came component video (similar braids with various colors), S-video (round plug, many holes) and eventually HDMI, the trapezoidal plug found on most TVs today. Monitors, meanwhile, have gone through a staggering number of cable types — VGA, SVGA, DVI, Micro-DVI, Mini-DVI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort and now HDMI, Mini HDMI and Micro HDMI. Is it any wonder that people have trouble setting up their home entertainment systems?
It’s hard to fault manufacturers for cycling through these varieties: As our devices got more powerful and their shapes changed, the cables had to change, too. One reason I’m optimistic that USB-C will stick around for a while is that it’s coming along during a new era of stability in tech. Next year’s smartphone or tablet is going to be only slightly different from this year’s. And USB-C is designed to change with the times — even though USB-C ports will get more powerful over time, your older USB-C devices will still have a place to plug in.
There will be exceptions, of course; in tech there always are. Lots of wearable devices — things like smart watches and fitness trackers — will continue to use their own specialized connector. Other connectors will stick around just because of market dynamics. I’d expect HDMI to linger because there are just too many devices that use it.
Even with these holdouts, though, USB-C’s kingdom is sure to be vast and its reign will be long. One cable that works for (pretty much) everything — sometimes, dreams do come true.
The New York Times