As it likes to do, Apple recently released a product before the world was ready. The new 12-inch MacBook has but a single port — unless you count the headphone jack — and it’s a completely new connector that almost no one has ever used before, breaking direct compatibility with millions of standard USB devices.
But that connector, known as USB Type-C or just USB-C, is likely to become one of the most ubiquitous advances in the recent history of computing and consumer electronics. It’s the compact, reversible port that does everything, and this week’s Computex Taipei shows the first signs of it spreading to the wider world.
How's the USB-C rollout going? “We think it’s going great,” says Jeff Ravencraft, president and COO of the USB Implementers Forum, who calls early Type-C devices like the Nokia N1 tablet, the latest MacBook, and the new Google Chromebook Pixel “above and beyond our wildest dreams” for the first products to hit the market. Manufacturers like Asus have got on board with USB-C this Computex, too, and it’s hard to walk the show floor without coming across hubs, adapters, and cables that support the new standard. “This is the fastest transition we’ve seen in 15 years or more,” says Ravencraft, “so knock on wood everything’s going extremely well and we’re really excited.”
Much of the initial attention around USB-C centered around its reversibility; Apple’s Lightning cables have shown how it’s hard to go back to struggling with asymmetrical USB jacks, and USB-C is the first standard solution to address the issue. But the connector’s potential functionality is just as important as its convenience. Built on the USB 3.1 spec and much smaller than a standard USB-A connector, USB-C can provide enough power to charge a laptop, enough bandwidth to carry a display signal, and fast enough data speeds for almost any normal user.
With the aid of a more sensible and functional hub than Apple’s ludicrous $79.99 MacBook adapter, you could charge your laptop and connect your monitor and peripherals with one single, easy-to-use cable, making for a seamless transition from cord-free mobile use to productive desk work. Just as the original USB connector eventually killed parallel, serial, PS/2, FireWire, and other ports, USB-C could spell the end for proprietary laptop chargers and dedicated ports like HDMI and Thunderbolt.
And earlier today Intel helped deliver the first blow, announcing that Thunderbolt 3 would adopt the USB-C connector after previous iterations used Mini DisplayPort. Thunderbolt 3 stands on USB 3.1’s shoulders to deliver speeds of up to 40Gbps, letting you run two 4K displays at 60Hz through just one port. It’s a big vote of confidence for USB-C from Intel, and could encourage more PC makers to adopt the standard; Thunderbolt has never quite shaken off its association with Apple, as many others prefer to use HDMI over Mini DisplayPort.
"On the path to no wires, you can go to one wire first," Intel SVP Kirk Skaugen told reporters today. Skaugen had just given a keynote address in which he detailed a completely wireless future powered by Intel technologies or Intel-backed consortiums — wireless displays, wireless charging, wireless docking, and wireless data. A lot will need to happen for all of that to become a reality, but USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are almost ready for regular people.
"I think there’s the potential for confusion."
Almost. Although USB-C seems an inevitable success at this point, it does have a couple of issues to iron out, perhaps the most pressing of which is the complexity of its offering. There will be USB 2.0 devices with USB-C connectors, like the Nokia N1; USB 3.1 devices that use regular USB-A connectors; USB 3.1 "Gen 1" devices only capable of 5Gbps transfer speeds over USB-C, like the new Chromebook Pixel and MacBook; and USB 3.1 Gen 2 devices that give you 10Gbps. USB-C could be the only cable you ever need, but at this point it may be hard to know exactly what performance you’re going to get when you plug something in.
"I think there’s the potential for confusion," says Ravencraft, whose forum publishes language and usage guidelines for both USB 3.1 and USB-C. "You do not get performance with the cable, you do not get power delivery with just the cable. The cable is a conduit for those things, right? So to have power delivery, the device has to have a power delivery controller, the host or the hub has to have a power delivery controller, and then you have to have the right cable." The USB Implementers Forum offers training programs to help employees at retailers like Best Buy and Staples give accurate information to consumers, and is particularly aiming to crack down on "bad-actor" manufacturers that try to deliberately mislead.
Intel’s Thunderbolt announcement muddies things further. Although Thunderbolt 3 is built atop USB 3.1 and uses the USB-C port, Intel tells us that devices like the new MacBook, Asus Transformer Book, or Chromebook Pixel won’t work at all with upcoming Thunderbolt 3 products, even through the slower USB standard. Customers will have to make sure that everything they’re connecting has the lightning-bolt logo next to their USB-C ports. (Ravencraft was speaking to The Verge before Intel’s announcement today, and the USB Implementers Forum did not respond to a request for subsequent comment.)
These may prove to be niche concerns in the long run. But USB-C has one more big hurdle before achieving true ubiquity: USB-A. Apart from the 3.5mm headphone jack, it’s difficult to think of a hardware feature that’s dominated the world as comprehensively as the standard USB port, which first came to widespread prominence around the release of Windows 98 and has survived ever since. "Our position is that Type-C is an addition to our other offerings," says Ravencraft. "The standard A connector, there are in excess of 20 billion of those devices in the install base. So I don’t see them going away any time soon."
USB-A handles the USB 3.1 spec just fine, so some companies may see no need to use USB-C on products where physical dimensions are less of a concern. "I think there probably are devices that don’t need the small form factor, that have plenty of Z-height, and they might just as well go with the standard A," Ravencraft notes. "It’s really going to depend on the OEM and what they want to do. We’re not deprecating the standard A or telling people to migrate — it’s really going to be up to the market."
And really, that’s reason enough to be optimistic. Our one-reversible-plug existence might seem overdue, but like its forerunner in the ‘90s, USB-C is that rare thing in the technology industry — a sensible standard that everyone might just agree on in the end. USB-C might not replace your familiar, chunky, maddeningly hard-to-connect USB-A cables entirely, but soon enough you won’t want to buy a computer without it.
Verge Video: This is the USB connector of the future