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For Thunderbolt and Lightning, USB-C is very, very frightening

For Thunderbolt and Lightning, USB-C is very, very frightening


The evolved, do-it-all USB spells trouble for Apple’s proprietary connectors

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The new MacBook represents Apple's vision for "the future of the notebook." That future is defined by thinness, lightness, and an almost total abandonment of external connectivity ports. Other than the mandatory headphone jack, there's just one port available on the MacBook: a USB Type-C connection that takes care of power, data transfers, and display output. Here's how Apple explains its choice of connector:

"As long as we were going to include a port for charging the new MacBook, we wanted to make sure it was the most advanced and versatile one available."There was once a time when Apple saw the connected future built around a pair of boldly titled interconnects: Thunderbolt for laptops and desktop computers, and Lightning for its mobile iOS devices. But the company's pursuit of a completely wireless laptop now bodes poorly for the future of Thunderbolt and even casts some doubt over the long-term prospects of Lightning.

Co-developed by Intel and Apple and introduced in the 2011 MacBook Pro, Thunderbolt promised to be the thing that made us leave USB behind. In simple terms, Thunderbolt is a much fatter and faster pipe for data transfers than USB, and it makes it possible to connect big storage arrays and high-resolution displays to your MacBook. Some four years after its introduction, however, Thunderbolt is still narrowly focused on high-end applications and hasn't been adopted or aggressively promoted by many PC makers beyond Apple.

The future is easy and convenient like USB, not superpowered like Thunderbolt

USB 3.1 with the smaller, reversible USB Type-C usurps the entire purpose of Thunderbolt cables for regular consumers. It lets you plug in your external hard drives — which make up the vast majority of the 50 Thunderbolt products on Apple's online store — and pushes video out to external displays. Type-C is easier to use than Thunderbolt and appears to be cheaper to implement, making it a no-brainer upgrade. Simple, less expensive, and still fast.

Apple is stridently asserting the new MacBook as its best MacBook ever, and its choice of interconnect is telling. The future, at least for mainstream consumers, is easy and convenient like USB instead of superpowered but expensive like Thunderbolt. The established high-end connector isn't going away immediately, as Apple used yesterday's event to also announce Thunderbolt 2 upgrades for the MacBook Air and Pro, but it will be swimming upstream to remain relevant in the face of an oncoming deluge of Type-C peripherals and devices.

The ubiquity of USB has already assisted in the demise of one Apple-led interconnect, FireWire, whose downfall began in similar fashion to today. FireWire was first phased out in 2008 in Apple's consumer laptops — which is exactly what the new MacBook is — and then disappeared from the Pro lineup within four years. Coincidentally, it was Thunderbolt that stepped into FireWire's place as the solution for high-speed connection needs.

Fat Thunderbolt connectors will never be used to connect or charge your phone, but that's what the new USB cable can do, and mobile devices like the Nokia N1 tablet are already adopting it. I suspect we'll see USB-C embraced widely and quickly, with it serving to replace Micro USB cables for phones and simplifying many people's lives.

Who needs Lightning when the new USB connector is just as good?

That leaves Apple's Lightning connector for mobile devices as a big fat question mark. Lightning was a great upgrade over Apple's previous 30-pin connector, but its symmetrical design and ability to both power a device and transfer data from it are now duplicated by USB Type-C. From a user's perspective, there's little reason to want Lightning over Type-C. The former is an Apple-only standard, whereas the latter is destined to become the universal method for connecting anything to everything.

Philips has been first to use Lightning for the unconventional purpose of connecting headphones to your iPhone. First and, so far, last. It's a little surprising not to see greater enthusiasm for a wider range of Lightning peripherals, but then the licensing costs associated with it are probably substantial enough to curtail experimentation. Accessory companies seem to be focusing on making the popular types of peripherals that will recoup their licensing fees. It's those same licensing revenues that Apple enjoys that lead me to doubt it would want to ever mess with its Lightning connector. Plus, Lightning is a tiny bit thinner than Type-C, which actually matters in mobile devices that are starting to struggle to fit the headphone jack.

The road to complete wireless freedom is paved with USB connectors

Even if it would make the world a better place by harmonizing all mobile devices around a single cable standard, replacing Lightning with USB Type-C appears unlikely. There's no reason why Lightning and USB Type-C can't coexist: Apple just needs to put one connector on either side of the cable (and probably bundle that cable in its next iPhone's box). The newly detailed Apple Watch also shows that the company isn't quite ready to fully commit to Type-C for all its wired needs. In spite of representing the latest in Apple's technology, the Watch uses a full-size USB plug for its charging cradle, making it slightly less futuristic but a lot more widely compatible.

Wireless everything is evidently Apple's overarching objective. The bridge to getting us there, on the evidence of the new MacBook, will be USB Type-C. The Thunderbolt's rumble has been quietened, and the Lightning's shine has been dulled. The omnipresent USB port looks set to retain its title as the world's favorite connector, only in a slimmer, prettier, and easier shape.

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