Moving Towards a Unified Port Future

In late 2016, Apple released an update to its popular MacBook Pro. Two key features were the replacement of the functions keys by the Touch Bar, and the simplification of the available ports. Gone are MagSafe, SD card readers, USB Type A, and HDMI. In their place you’ll find four Thunderbolt 3 ports and one audio port. There were both proponents and detractors for both of these changes, and often much angrier than I think they should be.

We’ve been here before

I’m not going to discuss the Touch Bar and lack of physical functions keys. Instead I’d like to focus on the port debate. As a long-time Apple user, I’ve been witness to a great many port and feature transitions. ADB to USB. PowerPC to Intel. The removal of the floppy drive. VGA to DVI to Mini DVI to Mini DisplayPort to HDMI. SCSI anyone? Technology advances.

We’ve come a long way

My first Apple laptop was a Apple PowerBook G4 1.5 17”. I absolutely LOVED that machine. I vividly remember traveling to the Chicago Apple Store on the train with my wife and coming home a beautiful shiny laptop. In fact, I still own it. In spite of my nostalgia, when I compare that laptop with my recently aquired work machine, I can’t help but understand (and appreciate) Apple’s movement towards simplification.

Port comparison of a 2004 PowerBook and a 2016 MacBook Pro
Top: 2016 MacBook Pro
Bottom: 2004 PowerBook

There were a lot of complaints when Apple removed the DVD-ROM drive, but once again, tech moved on. We don’t install software using DVD’s anymore. I don’t recall the last time I needed to burn a disk. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have to find interim solutions. There’s a reason why I have an external DVD drive on the shelf. But the fact is, I’ve found it’s required less and less as time goes on. The same will happen to these other ports.

It’s not all sunshine and roses

Yes, I have to keep a couple dongles in my bag. And currently I have a device plugged into every port on this machine. But as soon as some decent Thunderbolt 3 docks start showing up, that will quickly drop to one. Extra cost? Yup. Am I happy about it? Nope. But I really like the simplicity of it. Sit down, plug in one cable, and suddenly my external monitors, ethernet, keyboard, and Lightning cables are ready to go.

Growing pains are part of the technology landscape. The move to smaller and more versatile ports is a given. Before long USB-C will be everywhere. It’s already on a number of popular Android devices, including the Google Pixel.

Just to be clear, I am not being an Apple apologist. There are things about this machine that I do not like. But the port situation is not one of them. Upgrading our tech ecosystem can be expensive. But the bottom line is we’re all going to be better off on the other side of this transition. Just give it some time.