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Don’t ditch your USB-A dongle

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USB-C is the law. And so much better. Let’s move on, right? Of course. Except USB-A is all over the place. And it’s not going away any time soon. The reason? Simplicity rules …

A headline in Wired Magazine really set me off this week: “Ditch Your USB-A Dongle and Embrace the USB-C Life”. Obviously, the subject was dongles, not USB in general but my first reaction was still ‘you’ve got to be kidding’, right?’. The article turned out to be garbage from a confused writer, but it brought up an interesting point: Now that ‘everything’ is supposed to have USB-C, is it time for a cleanup? Get rid of the old stuff, simplify life? Because that’s the intent, isn’t it? Or at least one of the goals.

Actually, if it was that easy, we’d all be driving electric cars and use standardized remotes by now. So the answer is a big NO – which I’m sure doesn’t surprise you. Of course most of us would like to clean up the mess of cables and chargers and adapters floating around. All those irritating variants of USB-A in particular. A welcome improvement if it happens (see Universal Chargers: The Good; the Bad, the Ugly) – that’s a big IF, and certainly not on this side of 2030. If you’re interested in why (and at least slightly technically inclined), remembering VGA is useful. 

The VGA standard was incredible in many ways. The interface between our PCs and our monitors for longer than most people can remember. The plug, the cables, the constantly evolving underlying formats, the interface – which first appeared in 1987. That’s almost 50 years ago! And while HDMI has (finally) replaced VGA in most consumer equipment, the (analog mind you) technology lives on in all kinds of industrial settings, even in TVs sold today – for compatibility purposes. 

The VGA story has many fascinating elements which provide insight into what to expect from USB-A, the most important being simplicity – on the outside. The 15 pin connector and its ‘always works’ property which outweighed  just about any technical advancement more modern alternatives could offer. And adaptability. The simplistic starting point turned out to be technically expandable beneath the physical interface without braking backward compatibility. It took a lot of ingenuity, not to mention compromises, but it worked.

VGA connector – Image © Wikimedia

This sounds a lot like USB-A because it is. A very simplistic starting point intended to replace the venerable RS232 serial interface which had been around since the early seventies and was overdue for replacement when USB came around in 1996. However, the market didn’t care. Just like VGA, RS232 was so entrenched in the market, so cheap and so ‘good enough’ that the alternative seemed like extra cost with little additional value. USB didn’t catch on until native devices arrived in numbers and demonstrated entirely new capabilities and not the least convenience: First printers, keyboards, mice, game controllers and other low speed devices, later storage and audio devices. Interestingly, even then USB didn’t replace serial ports but added a simplified external bus to an exploding PC market (and killed SCSI, but that’s a different story). The serial port and the 9 pin Dsub connector was eventually ditched by Apple around the turn of the century but remained a standard fixture on most PCs beyond 2010. A simplified (TTL) version is widely used in industrial and IoT equipment to this day.

This is what USB-C is up against. That’s the ‘fight’ writers and pundits like to portray. Reality is different and the name USB-C is misleading to say the least. USB-C has very little in common with USB-A except some backwards compatibility which is (unsurprisingly) achieved through adapters. USB-C is an advanced, modern high speed serial bus with lots of sophisticated capabilities including the ability to replace HDMI, Ethernet, SATA and a lot more. Plus the capability to carry enough energy (current + voltage) to power most small devices and charge all kinds of mobile devices fast.

So this is where VGA and USB-A meet – and tell us what to expect: Good enough and ubiquitous. Many of us have USB-A wall outlets for charging at home, at the office, in the car, they’re available in all kinds of public places (questionable security but that’s a different story). 3 generations of users are used to the fact that you have to turn the plug the right way. In addition, and now we’re back to the Wired article: Tens of thousands of different dongles are making our life easier every day (if not necessarily simpler). Like your 2-factor-authentication device – or my FPGA development unit (picture below).

I love progress as much as I hate laggards. I also love simplicity and I was fascinated when the 12″ MacBook I acquired in 2015 had only two connectors: USB-C and and audio mini-jack. So simple – until I needed to attach projectors, disks, SD cards and other ‘stuff’ which brought me back to square one so to speak. Adapters, cables, converters.

This is reality. USB-C is great, USB-C is the future, but don’t ditch your USB-A stuff any time soon. You’ll need it for another 10 years. Maybe more.

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