There’s a tiny-but-terrific change coming to phoneland. It’s one of those things that gadgetheads geek out over that’s seemingly insignificant to 99 percent of the population*, but we should talk about it right now anyway because one day you’ll look at your phone and think, “Hey, what’s this thing?”
It’s called USB Type-C, or USB-C, and you can learn a lot more about it here. That’s right, that’s the little port at the bottom of the phone that you mostly use for plugging in your charger. The bottom line is that the USB protocol for phones and for a whole lot of other devices, like tablets and computers, is changing — for the better.
(P.S. The shape of the plug that your non-iPhone phone has now is called USB-B and the one your computer has is called USB-A. Apple’s is called the Lightning port and it’s totally different and proprietary and it won’t work with USB-C.)
USB-C is cool for a bunch of reasons. First, it’s reversible, which means that unlike the Micro-USB plug you use now, you can stick in a USB-C cable any which way and it doesn’t matter because either side is “up.” No more fumbling and swearing under your breath when you can’t get the connector in just-so.
In addition to that, USB-C (which describes the plug’s shape) supports the USB 3.1 standard, which describes some stuff you can do besides simply charging your own phone. For example, you’ll be able to quickly transfer data and videos through the cable. The standard can also help your phone (or tablet or laptop) power other gadgets in a pinch.
Finally, the fact that device-makers along the entire electronics spectrum are also implementing USB-C means that your handset can potentially share charging cords with other devices, too — always a bonus.
But wait, there’s more
So, before we go on, just nod if you understand that a phone can have the USB-C port for charging, but it still might not immediately support the nifty features with USB 3.1. That’ll all happen eventually, because these things always do as part of industry growth, and if your phone has the USB-C plug, you’ll be prepared to take full advantage when it does.
In order to bask in USB-C’s full USB 3.1 effect, the operating system really does makes a difference because the software has to be coded to work with all those extra features other than plain-old charging. This Chinese company called Letv whose three phones run on Android 5.0 Lollipop right now? Sure, they can use the USB-C charger as a charger, but Google says they won’t be able to share power with other devices until Android M, its next-gen operating system, arrives.
That’s because Google developers still have to write that code into Android. The good news is that Google did get up on stage at its flashy big annual I/O developer conference in May and say that it’ll support for USB-C connections (specifically, those USB 3.1 goodies), so we know that’s coming pretty soon.
According to Google, it’ll work like this: their software will present a menu when you plug in the cable to let you choose the kind of connection you’re making (for example, charging) and if you want to use the cord to power another device.
(Microsoft hasn’t gotten back to me on their plans for this, and BlackBerry says “We use USB 2.0 on current BlackBerry 10 smartphones and we can’t comment on future products.”)
Mo’ cables, mo’ problems
So until then, if your phone has USB-C without all the extra good stuff, you now have to change cables for pretty much no reason or advantage. And while the smallness of the thing is great and space-saving for laptops, that Micro-USB port your phone already has is pretty small anyway, so that particular change isn’t really a big deal.
There’s also that awkward period of 6 to 18 months where your gadgets could all use different cables, which is a pain to mentally sort out, and which can be a real hassle if suddenly you need to buy a bunch of $20 cables to make sure you can keep using all your stuff together. For example, you might need to pick up a separate USB-C-to-USB-A cable to make sure your new phone still plugs into your old laptop.
Coming to flagships first
Still, overall, this is a Good Thing to happen to the electronics industry, and USB-C is already on a handful of devices, including a MacBook (that’s right, Apple computers will use Type-C, but the phones don’t), a Chromebook, the Nokia N1 tablet and those three phones in the Letv Le Superphone family. The OnePlus 2 will probably have it, too, we think (but don’t yet know) that the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 could have it, and so on, out into pretty much all future flagship phones (except Apple, of course).
Starting out with flagships is exactly what the pundits expect. For example, Carolina Milanesi, Chief of Research and Head of US Business at Kantar Worldpanel, points out that in the beginning, faced with lower supply, electronics-makers will need to judiciously place the connector in the devices that benefit most from supplying cutting-edge tech — in other words, your highest-profile phones.
After that, and as the parts become cheaper over time, look for the midrange and entry-level handsets to start getting Type-C, too. Since PCs use Type-C as well, “We should see price points come down fast enough to make it viable throughout the [phone-maker’s] portfolio,” Milanesi said.
Stephen Baker, a vice president of industry analysis at the NPD Group, agrees, adding that “it will take place over a few years, as it will in PCs, where we expect to see lots of USB-C PCs starting to show up in Q4.”
Even though it’ll take awhile before every phone and non-phone gets USB-C and all its USB 3.1 powers, phone-makers are going to prepare themselves by building momentum fast, and likely in time for the holiday crush.
“We expect to see more of a proliferation on the PC side going into holiday season,” said Trevor Hirsch, product development manager at Belkin, which is best known for making cases, cables, routers and power packs. Mobile devices should also pick up “in the fall nearing towards Holiday.”
Of course, while holiday sales will be huge, device makers all have different cycles for updating their phones, and I doubt they’ll fast-track their roadmap just to take advantage of USB-C. So if the phone you’re looking at usually launches its next iteration in summer, my guess is that it won’t get USB-C until then, or maybe the year after.
So now you’ve just let me throw a lot of stuff about this new standard in your direction, and I thank you for that. In addition to now being able to impress your family and friends with your extensive knowledge of this fairly minor (but still really cool) aspect of your future phone, you yourself are at the forefront of this quiet USB revolution.
When your new non-iPhone comes with USB-C, as it will inevitably will, you’ll know exactly what to do, how you might have to prepare with more cables, and that even if it doesn’t support USB 3.1 features right now, you’ll get those in the future, and it’ll be better for everyone.
Oh, and just one more thing. When you do buy anything with the new USB standard, just make sure you get the certified one with the USB logo on it. That guarantees that those cables and accessories you’re buying have been tested against the standard protocol, and will work safely and reliably.
*Not based on actual data.