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The next version of USB is the key to Apple's new MacBook

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Is Apple finally making a cheaper laptop?

Apple appears to be working towards a thinner and totally redesigned MacBook. A curiously timed report from 9to5Mac, just as the Consumer Electronics Show opens today with lots of thin and light Windows laptops, claims Apple’s next notebook will be a 12-inch MacBook Air without full-size USB ports. That particular point has surprised many, but perhaps it shouldn’t.

This could finally be the inexpensive Apple laptop that so many have been clamoring for — cheap enough to compete with low-end Windows laptops and Chromebooks, but with hopefully fewer compromises.

Read next: 12-inch MacBook review.

There are two pieces of technology that Apple would need to get there: USB Type-C and a processor that runs cool enough to help achieve a thin design without a fan. The most important is probably USB Type-C, the smaller, faster, and reversible cable that will help make gadgets thinner in the future. Importantly, it can also serve as the power cable and display for devices, so you only need a single small port to do nearly everything you would want on a laptop. 9to5Mac’s report claims the future MacBook will be thinner and lighter than existing MacBook Airs, and that it will eliminate all ports except for USB Type-C.

Verge Video from CES 2015: This is the reversible USB of your future

Apple has been silently backing the next version of USB

As it turns out, Apple has been heavily backing USB Type-C. Documents detailing contributors to the USB Type-C specification reveal that Apple assigned 18 engineers to help build it alongside companies like Lenovo, Dell, and HP. That engineer count is second only to Intel (with 24 people) and just above Microsoft’s 16 assigned engineers. Apple significantly surpasses the amount of engineers assigned from Google (10), Dell (5), and HP (6).

Some of the engineers also work on interoperability inside Apple, which could suggest Apple may seek to use USB Type-C across its product lines in the future. It could raise questions for the future of both the Thunderbolt and Lightning: USB Type-C is similar in shape and size to Apple’s existing Lightning connector, and has similar capabilities to Thunderbolt. The idea of Apple dropping either sounds far-fetched right now, but the company confidently scrapped FireWire from fifth-generation iPods with video, and started to kill it from MacBooks in 2008 to much dismay at the time. If the rumored 12-inch MacBook Air arrives this year, Lightning will be celebrating its third birthday, and possibly awaiting its fate at the same time. For all we know, the same situation might apply to Thunderbolt, Apple’s current version of the one port to rule them all.

It’s not unusual for Apple to be heavily involved in forming hardware specifications — the company fought against Nokia to finalize the nano-SIM standard just in time for the release of the iPhone 5 — but the employees assigned from the company suggest Apple may well be planning to use USB Type-C on a future Mac. At least two employees work inside Apple’s Mac hardware group and Mac systems architecture group, and the rest are a mix of cable experts, product designers, and pure software / hardware engineers.

A fanless Intel Core M looks likely

After USB-C, the second thing Apple would need to pull off this laptop is the processor. Laptop makers are launching laptops with Intel's latest Broadwell processors this week, but the chip still runs hot enough to need a fan — something a super-thin 12-inch MacBook would probably do without, given the rumored dimensions. Instead, Apple could use the Intel Core M processor to keep things cool and make sure battery life is sufficient, something the company has been investing in with MacBooks for years now. A Core M would mean that this MacBook would be super-thin, light, and small, but perhaps not a very powerful machine. The Core M would be able to power the MacBook's rumored high-res screen — such screens are standard on most mid-range and even some low-cost laptop this year — but it wouldn't be a screamer. Instead, it would be a great little machine for browsing, video watching, and anything that involves typing.

It’s not crazy to imagine Apple trying to capitalize on the growing popularity of the MacBook Air with a model that’s more reasonably priced. Apple shipped faster and cheaper versions of the MacBook Air in April, and even created a new ad celebrating "the countless ways people love the MacBook Air" in July. Microsoft is clearly alarmed at the popularity of the MacBook Air as the software maker has compared its Surface Pro 3 tablet to Apple’s laptop non-stop since its launch. A cheaper MacBook could put huge pressure on laptop makers like Lenovo, HP, and Dell.