A One-Port Mac?
Yes, the latest rumor to come out of the mill is that Apple is going to introduce a radically re-designed, one-port Macbook Air sometime this year. It will have a 12-inch screen, a keyboard, a trackpad… and a single USB C port, along with the usual 3.5mm headphone jack. That's just one lonely little port for power, printers, external drives or card readers, USB audio peripherals, connecting your iOS devices, and any other wired connections you might need to do. Crazy, right? Why would anyone want a computer with just one port? Remember that this is a rumor, so should be taken with a whole shakerful of salt. Let's assume, though, that it's actually going to happen, just for the sake of argument.
Before we go on, let me explain what USB type C actually is. If you didn't read the linked article, or tried to and got a headache, here's a summary: compared to USB C, the USB plugs we're used to are big, fragmented, under-powered, and can only be plugged in one way. Think about it: you have the big rectangles for some things, the square type for printers, the small ones with the two bumps for some phones or headsets, the small but smooth ones for other phones and devices… And all of them have to be plugged in the right way. That's all just USB - what about the three or four other connection types available on different hard drives, the numerous connections used to hook up monitors or TVs, and the plethora of non-standard plugs used to charge laptops.
Type C can carry enough juice to charge up a laptop, transfer data at incredible speeds, drive a 4K screen, and best of all, it doesn't matter which way you plug it in, similar to the Lightning connector on newer iOS devices. It can even be reversed, so you can connect either end of the cable to the computer, it doesn't matter which one or which way up it is. Basically, USB C will, once it becomes ubiquitous, have the ability to do in one port what it currently takes a bunch of different ports to accomplish, and it will do it in a far easier way. Your laptop's charging cable will have the same connector as your printer, and your phone's sync cable, and your camera's charge cable, and your external drive's connector, and on and on. It's one USB port to rule them all. No more USB3 versus USB2 versus USB mini/micro versus ESATA versus power versus Firewire versus Thunderbolt versus HDMI versus… You get the point. One standard, one type of connection.
But Back to the Macbook
Okay, I've yapped enough about USB C. Let's return to the point of this post: the fabled single-port Macbook. I said earlier that the lone port this device will include is a USB C type, and now you see the logic behind that decision. The port itself is smaller, letting the Macbook be thinner than today's machines; it supports everything, letting it accept your thumb drive, or your power adapter, or your printer, or anything else you can think of; it's far more user-friendly, and Apple is all about ease of use in its products. No longer will computers need to support an array of connection types, since they'll all be one, which is how this Mac gets away with having only one type of port.
But it's not only that there's just one type of port, there's literally only one port, period. That means that, if you're charging the Macbook, you can't plug in your thumb drive; if you're looking at files on your external drive, you can't print one to a wired printer. Imagine for a moment going through your day, being allowed to connect only one thing at a time to your computer. Again: insanity, no one will ever go for it.
Why It Might Actually Work
I asked you a moment ago to think about how you would get by if you could only attach one device (headphones don't count) to your computer at a time. When I first read about this concept Mac, I did just that, and I concluded that I could never manage that way. Then, I repeated the exercise, and was surprised to find that, actually, I could probably get by just fine.
First of all, think about how many places use networked printers. Even the cheap printers nowadays include wifi, and after the initial setup, you really never need to physically plug the printer into your computer again. Wifi can also be used for many external drives, through what's known as network attached storage. These days, many wireless routers include a USB port, letting you plug in your hard drive and have an instant storage drive accessible from any machine connected to your network. Of course, cloud-based options like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and Apple's own iCloud Drive are options as well. All this means that, with the exception of the odd thumb drive or media card reader, you never really need to connect storage or printers to your Mac.
Some of you are saying that wifi is great for casual access, like streaming a movie, but it's slow for heavy work (such as copying gigabytes of data). Well, it is, but the newest 802.11AC wifi standard makes it much faster. Plus, if you really need the speed (e.g. for a huge transfer), you could still use the Mac's single port for a wired connection. If you absolutely need to take this route, but you also need to have something else plugged into your Mac at the same time… Read on, we'll get there.
The single USB C port is also the charging port. This is great for minimizing the number of adapters you need, but when you're charging the Mac, you can't connect anything if you need to, right? This train of thinking is flawed, I think. Charging and copying pictures off an SD card don't need to happen at the same time. If your battery is at 20%, you have plenty of juice to unplug the power, copy your files, and plug the power cable back in. If your battery is critically low, then yes, you'll have a problem, except for…
From One, Many
A hub! Remember USB hubs? Plug one end into a single USB port, and you suddenly have four, or six, or ten new ports to work with. The powered ones can even provide enough juice to charge mobile devices or run high-powered hard disks, but since USB C can carry all the electricity you could want, I imagine all USB C hubs will be powered by default. What if you could purchase a hub, giving you access to several USB C and older USB 2 or 3 (what we have right now) ports? A flat little rectangle connected to your Macbook would offer enough connectivity for a number of devices, let alone the two that most of us would occasionally need to run simultaneously. Hello, person who needs a wired hard drive along with another wired connection, I told you I'd get back to you.
What if Apple is considering a whole new direction for charging, though? At the 2015 Consumer Electronics show, we saw a method for wirelessly powering devices. This isn't just placing your phone on a special pad that's connected to the wall, this is having your phone in your pocket, as a box up to twenty feet away beams power through the air and charges your battery. In short, so long as you are within range of one of these boxes, your gadgets will be receiving power without having to touch, or even be next to, the box.
What if Apple includes this technology in their supposed new Macbook? If the regular power cable isn't going to work for you, just pick up a wireless power station, put it in the same room as the Mac, and never plug anything in again. Even if Apple goes with the older method of wireless charging (where your device sits on a special pad that uses magnetic induction to provide power), the point remains that you don't need to worry about plugging in your Mac. Apple might also go in a new direction, with a power cable that sticks to your Mac magnetically and uses a small induction pad to charge - a combination of today's MagSafe technology and the current crop of "wireless" charging solutions. Such a connector wouldn't need a port, only a certain place on the Mac to which it can attach magnetically.
See? It Could Work!
Using a computer with only one port seems, on its face, ridiculous. But think about today's technology and the way we use our devices, and it seems less far-fetched. Wifi to get online, access local or remote storage, and (along with bluetooth) talk to other machines; wireless or magnetic charging to avoid the need for a traditional power adapter; USB C, so that the one port you do have will work with just about anything; hubs, in case you really do need more than one port at a time.
If Apple does end up releasing a machine with just one port, it might actually work. Plus, this design will let them make a thinner, cheaper computer, and could drive a new wave of design changes across the entire laptop industry. Remember when Apple killed the optical disk drive or ethernet port? They've started trends before, many times, and they could do it again. If they do, don't panic; as you've just seen, it might actually be a workable idea.
The question of why Apple would consider such a move is more difficult to answer - we're now speculating about a product whose very existence is itself speculation. But hey, we've come this far, right?
I am in complete agreement with this Macworld article explaining the possible reasoning. As the article points out: "Rarely, if ever, has Apple guessed wrong when it comes to soon-to-be-obsolete technology. It reads the writing on the wall like no other company can, and has set the tone for the industry since the early days of the Mac." The author goes on to point out that Apple was a major part of the death of floppy drives, serial ports, traditional pointing devices, optical drives, ethernet jacks, and even its own FireWire technology. We must also remember that, while not directly related to the personal computer, Apple was also the driving force behind the digital music revolution (with the iPod line) and the modern smartphone. True, Apple has sometimes guessed wrong (its delay of large-screen phones or its betting that Thunderbolt would explode in popularity), but overall, it has a proven record of showing the rest of the computing world where the future lies, then forcing everyone to go there. Almost each time, we fight it at first, give in, and eventually marvel that we ever got along any other way.
Where Do You Stand?
Are the days of multi-port laptops over? Will the shift to computers that include one or two USB C ports, and which rely on wireless technologies and wired hubs for connectivity, begin with the 2015 Macbook Air? If so, many people will wonder why, with plenty of articles and reviews decrying the decision and predicting the end for Apple. However, everyone thought the cd and dvd were the best things ever, until Apple forced us to rely on digital music and movies. Now, digital entertainment is standard, with optical disks as a fallback. Perhaps, in five years, we'll all look back at laptops with multiple ports and wonder how we ever thought they were a good idea.
What do you think? Terrible idea, or workable design? Remember, before you automatically call this the worst thing in the history of everything, carefully consider it. If it means even lighter, thinner computers that cost less, would it be worth it? Do you truly need multiple ports in your laptop, or is it something you're just so used to that the idea of changing that model is worse than the actual change would be? Or are there legitimate needs for multiple device connectivity that I've overlooked (I'm sure there are)? What if this theoretical Macbook is meant to be a lightweight machine you take everywhere, while the "real work", where you would need several things plugged into your Mac, happens at home? We're well into the land of theory, speculation, and guesswork anyway, so go crazy!
Okay, now that you've read why this could actually work, and now that you understand the possibilities of USB C, and now that you've been reminded of some of Apple's future-thinking successes and failures… Sound off in the comments! I'd love to hear what you have to say on this. Oh, and do please remember that this is still only a rumor.