USB Type-C Could Change the Laptop/Smartphone Supply Chain

If you have followed the recent announcements from Google, Samsung, Apple, and recently OnePlus, you have probably noticed a handful of new devices using a new, slick, universal serial bus (USB) connector, called USB Type-C.

First, Apple introduced their new MacBook, an ultralight notebook aimed at people on the move, with one USB Type-C and a headphone jack as the only physical ports. Google, not wanting to be left behind, introduced the new ChomeBook Pixel two months ago, equipped with two USB Type-C connectors, one on each side of the laptop. But they also included 2x USB 3.0 Type-A and a SD card reader.

USB type C connector in the apple manufacturing supply chain

Recently OnePlus, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer that last year launched the "One", has announced that their next generation flagship device, the OnePlus Two, will feature the USB-C connector.

The advantage for manufacturers in using the USB Type-C is enormous. It allows them to deliver power, data, and display over a single connector, cable, and port. About the same size as a micro-USB connector, it is good for over 100W, high-speed data (currently 10Gbps using the USB 3.1 specs) and a 4K display.

One nice feature of the USB Type-C is that it's reversible; people no longer need to squint to plug in the cable.

However, this brand new port creates some problems for consumers and peripheral manufacturers. Currently, most devices use either the typical USB Type-A--found on most computers-- or the Micro-USB featured on tablets and smartphones (except Apple devices). More than three billion USB connectors are shipped every year.

Consumers purchasing the new MacBook or are faced with the fact that they can't connect their old USB devices and need to purchase an adaptor. Also, the lack of additional connectors makes it difficult, with only one USB Type-C port, to charge the computer and use an additional device, such as an external display or a pointing device such as a USB tablet, at the same time. Apple argues that most users will be connecting their devices via Bluetooth and there is no need for more ports.

Some regulations also need to be changed. Last year the European Parliament approved the final draft of the new Radio Equipment Directive, destined to replace the old 1999 "R&TTE Directive on Radio Equipment and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment." One of the most commented provisions of the new directive, which will not go into full effect until 2017, is the requirement that all mobile phones and tablets in the European Union use a common charger. When the new directive takes effect, all mobile phone manufacturers will need to provide chargers with the Micro USB interface (namely, the Micro USB configured with the CENELEC EN 62684 and ETSI EN 301489-34 standards).

Back in 2009, the European Commission reached an agreement with 10 leading manufacturers, including Samsung, Sony, and Apple, to reduce the amount of waste generated by discarded phone chargers. But the agreement only held until the end of 2012, when Apple launched its iPhone 5 in Europe and introduced a lightning connector. Apple then claimed that customers had the choice of purchasing a special Lightning-to-Micro USB adaptor to use with standard chargers. The adaptor is only available in Europe and costs an additional 19 EUR ($27). Since customers always receive lightning chargers with their iPhones, this process simply creates more waste.

manufactured charging cables

It's too early to know if Apple is committed to the new USB Type-C for all new devices. So far the only product shipping with the new connector is the new MacBook. Until now the company justified the use of the lightning connector to provide more power to certain devices, such as iPads, than the micro-usb could provide. But that is not longer an issue with USB Type-C.

In the long run, the USB Type-C will be good for everyone. It will help reduce electronic waste since you could theoretically use the same charger for all devices. In addition, it will end the need for different data cables across manufacturers (I can't wait to see iPhones and iPads with Type-C).

In the meantime, there will be problems in the supply chain. Many new devices are still being developed for the old connectors, and most peripherals are designed with other USB types. Since the USB Type-C is compatible with the USB 3.1 specification it would be easy for peripheral manufacturers to supply another connection cable with Type-C on the other end, but that adds additional cost and logistics.

I believe most users of the new laptops will end up purchasing an USB Type-C hub, such as the one sold by Apple for $79, which includes USB Type-C (for power), HDMI and USB Type-A connectors. The simple USB Type-C to Type-A adapter retails for $19 on the Apple Store, in line with typical Apple prices. A real bargain!!

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