2017: The year of the adapter?

December 27, 2016 // By Bill Schweber
Bill Schweber considers the age-old conundrum of upgrade cycles and their impact on physical connectivity.

New interface standards and their physical realization are an ongoing part of technology life, and 2016 has been busy in that area. We have two major developments: first, the 2014 establishment of the USB Type-C interface (Figure 1), now starting to appear on smart phones, laptops, and more; and Apple's elimination of the traditional headphone jack on the iPhone 7, replaced with a single Lightning port (Figure 2) for both listening and charging (the purported reason is to make the iPhone 7 more water resistant.)

The USB Type-C standard greatly enhances the functionality and performance of USB 2.0, but the transition may be a challenge for the huge installed base. Source: USB Implementers Forum/USB.org.

Of course, there are countless devices and cables using the older USB 2.0 and other connectors in widespread use, and many people do need to charge their phone and use their headset at the same time. The issue is that users must get ready for the future, while living in the present.

This dilemma has been the subject of many columns by the pundit community, such as the piece "Adapter or Die: Must-Have Dongles for Your iPhone 7, Android and Laptop " in The Wall Street Journal (sorry, it may be behind paid firewall). Not only is it a relatively easy topic to write about (columnists really like that), but it's a universal topic as there are very, very few readers who are not affected to some extent. The issue then becomes what to do about it, if you have "legacy" devices to keep in play.

The answer is easy: buy adapters (the columnist in the Journal calls them dongles, but I consider a dongle to be a hardware key to give you access to a program, not a physical adapter). No doubt the vendors of these adapter units are already finishing up their tooling and producing adapters to overcome the problem for those millions of sockets which need to serve both new and old standards. That's the good news.

The not-so-good news, in my opinion, is two-fold. First, the obvious: users will have to carry a bunch of adapters and not misplace/lose them during your personal transition period, which may be months to years. Second, many of the better-quality adapters will be pushed out of the market by cheap one – and I mean "cheap in terms of both price and performance. Pretty soon, they'll be an impulse-purchase in little displays at the checkout register of your nearest convenience store or gas station, just as there now are charging and USB 2.0 cords.

Next: Adaption as jungle