So there was an Apple media event this week, as you might have heard. And while all the buzz going into the event was about the Apple Watch, the most interesting new product to come out of the event was actually a laptop, and the most interesting thing about that laptop might be a single port.
The new MacBook is about as Apple-like a product as you could imagine. It ditches standard USB ports, Apple's MagSafe power port, the Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port... pretty much everything that's on all of Apple's other laptops except a headphone jack. In its place is a single USB-C port, and... that's it.
No, seriously, this is a laptop with a headphone jack and a single port... and nothing else.
Now, USB-C is exciting new technology, and it probably won't be too long until just about every laptop comes with USB-C ports. (Google's new Chromebook Pixel, also announced this week, features two USB-C ports.) USB-C is a huge step forward for the USB consortium--and with any huge step forward, it breaks stuff. Using USB-C equipment with older USB devices will require adapters, but it should be forward-compatible with future implementations of USB.
But USB-C is so much more versatile than previous versions of USB that it's not even funny. The MacBook implements support for USB 3.1, a high-speed transfer medium. Devices can use that throughput for fast storage as well as high-resolution video-out, so there's no need for separate connector types for displays and peripherals. And USB-C also supports bi-directional power, so you can charge a laptop with it--or use a laptop to charge another device with it.
Presumably the market will fill with USB-C accessories as this connector becomes more popular, but for now Apple has announced a few adapters. There's a $19 USB-C to standard USB adapter, and two different $79 multiport adapters--one that provides HDMI and standard USB (as well as a USB-C port, presumably to connect your device to a power source), and one that provides VGA rather than HDMI.
I have to admit, I'm a little surprised that Apple isn't offering a more full-featured docking station for people who want to convert the tiny MacBook into a desktop device. I used a laptop as my primary computer for several years, and loved having a docking station--my most recent one was the Belkin Thunderbolt Dock, which provides gigabit Ethernet, audio, USB, Thunderbolt, and FireWire ports. All I had to do was plug a single cable into my laptop and it picked up wired networking, an external monitor, an external speaker, and a handful of peripherals.
(The MacBook itself looks like a fun little system for people whose needs aren't particularly stressful. It's powered by an Intel Core M processor, meaning it's a 2015 system with the power of a MacBook Air from three years ago. But there's an entire class of user who doesn't need high levels of performance and wants the thinnest, lightest laptop they can get their hands on.)
But as a longtime user of Apple gear, the talk of a connection transition gives me the willies. And if you support people with Apple gear, or use it yourself, you should be prepared for what's to come.
For years, Apple's computers were insanely incompatible. If you're looking over the fence from the Windows world at today's Apple and find it a strange, weird world--let me tell you, you should've seen it in the '90s. Back then, the headphone jack and a 3.5-inch floppy drive were probably the only things that Macs and PCs had in common. Macs didn't have Intel processors, used their own proprietary serial and keyboard/mouse ports, and favored the SCSI connection standard--you'd think you'd pronounce that acronym as "sexy," but no, we all pronounced it "scuzzy"--for hard drives.
But a funny thing happened. Over the course of a decade, Macs turned into PCs. Apple's near-death experience convinced Steve Jobs that the company couldn't keep building computers that were incompatible in almost every conceivable way. In came USB on the original iMac, and out went Mac serial, Apple Desktop Bus, and SCSI connectors. In came Mac OS X, which could actually mount Windows file servers without expensive additional software. And finally, in came Intel processors.
However, if you've ever been in charge of a company conference room, you know that it took another decade for Apple to settle on a standard for its video-out port. How many of us have stood next to a projector and either said, or heard someone say, "Do you have an adapter that will fit my Mac laptop?" (For years the answer was almost always a rueful laugh.) Apple never wanted to put VGA ports on its laptops, so instead we got proprietary display connectors and weird offshoots of the DVI standard. I once owned a Mac laptop that was literally the only Mac Apple ever made to feature Micro-DVI. I still have an adapter for it somewhere.
Finally, Apple got its act together with its support for Mini DisplayPort, and when it introduced Thunderbolt, it was with a port size that was identical to Mini DisplayPort, which Thunderbolt could emulate. So for several years now, that Mini DisplayPort plug has been the go-to adapter for pretty much every Mac model out there.
Is the MacBook's USB-C port an aberration? I'd like to say yes, but I kind of doubt it. If you're someone whose job includes getting people connected to projectors, you'll need to invest in some more of those white Apple video adapters. I think the new MacBook is adorable, but it represents a future with a whole lot of frustrated people who forgot to bring the right adapter to a meeting.
It's been a good run, but now it's time for all of us to start doing the adapter shuffle. That's the price of progress, I guess.