It was big news when Apple announced on Sept. 12, 2023, that it plans to integrate the USB-C connector across all four of its new iPhone 15 models. This move aligns Apple with the broader electronics industry, which has increasingly adopted USB-C since the product’s inception nine years ago. It also puts Apple in compliance with new European Union regulations mandating a connector standard for consumer electronic devices.
Co-invented by Ajay Bhatt, The Universal Serial Bus — Type C (USB-C), succeeding USB-A and USB-B, encapsulates the vision for a universal interface to enhance user interaction with a multitude of devices by simplifying connectivity and user experience. USB-C it is capable of transferring both power and large volumes of data, making it well-suited for tasks such as moving 4k video footage from a computer to an external high-speed drive array. It also facilitates video and audio output to external monitors, rapidly charges gamer-class devices, and connects laptops to external graphics cards.
Thunderbolt 5 utilizes the USB-C interface to provide an advanced, high-capacity data transfer solution with four channels supporting up to 80 Gbps bi-directionally. Complemented by robust power delivery of up to 240 watts, it is sufficient for today's laptops and forward-looking for future devices. It enhances the multi-display experience with the capacity to support three 4K monitors at 144 Hz. The USB-C's development, led by the USB Implementers Forum, underscores its universal appeal with a reversible design and compatibility with legacy ports like HDMI, DisplayPort and VGA, making it a streamlined standard for connecting a wide array of devices and chargers.
Who stands to gain?
The acceptance of USB-C across the electronics industry is not only a move towards standardization that many have been waiting for, but a leap into a future where interoperability and efficiency rule. The implications impact the way we think about connectivity and power. Market projections show nearly 4 billion USB-C connectors will be sold by 2023, with the figure expected to skyrocket by 19 billion by 2033, indicating USB-C will become the de facto connector type for most electronic devices.
Apple’s ecosystem — On a chip and component level, this move could streamline Apple’s supply chain, potentially leading to cost savings and efficiency gains. Manufacturers of USB-C components may see an increase in demand, driving growth in that sector. The endorsement of USB-C may extend beyond the iPhone. Apple’s iPad Pro already utilizes USB-C, and this move could signal a shift for other devices in Apple’s lineup, leading to a more cohesive ecosystem.
Consumers — On the one hand, the ability to use a single cable for multiple devices is a matter of convenience and cost-saving. On the other, it is a significant step toward reducing the carbon footprint associated with the production and disposal of electronic accessories. The high-speed data transfer capability of USB-C, coupled with its power delivery proficiency, improves the user experience by leaps and bounds.
Accessory manufacturers — For accessory manufacturers, the burgeoning USB-C market represents fertile ground for innovation. Standardization could drive innovation, as accessory manufacturers are no longer bound by proprietary standards and can focus on improving functionality and design across devices. The expansion of the USB-C market could incentivize manufacturers to diversify their offerings and invest in the development of more sophisticated and higher-quality products. This competition is not just beneficial for the consumer in terms of options and price points, but also for the industry in fostering a culture of innovation and quality advancement.
Third-party repair shops — Repair shops stand to benefit from a standardization of connectors. The need for specialized tools and parts for different devices has long been a barrier to efficient repairs. A universal connector could democratize device repair, allowing for a broader range of service providers and potentially drive down costs for consumers. This shift could also contribute to a more sustainable electronics lifecycle, with increased repairability extending the life of devices and reducing waste.
The environment — The European Union's Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive has been pushing for such standardization to improve the sustainable production and consumption of electrical and electronic equipment, while mitigating their waste. By consolidating the connector ecosystem, USB-C could drastically reduce the number of cables and chargers discarded each year, thus aligning with broader environmental goals.
Who might lose?
Manufacturers who have long relied on the production of Apple's proprietary lightning connectors may now be facing a downturn in demand, as the industry gravitates toward a more universal standard. With millions of devices worldwide currently depending on lightning connectors, the transition could mean an overhaul of product lines and represent a considerable loss in revenue.
For Apple, the move away from the lightning connector may also translate to a diminished hold over the accessory market. The MFi program, which stands for "Made for iPhone/iPad," not only served as a quality assurance mechanism but also as a source of licensing revenue for Apple. In fiscal year 2022 alone, Apple's licensing and other services segment, which includes the MFi program, brought in over $78B in revenue, contributing to the company's overall revenue of $394 billion.
With the introduction of USB-C, accessory makers will no longer be bound to the stringent requirements of the MFi program, potentially leading to a more competitive market that could erode Apple's accessory revenue and control. This shift could stimulate a broader array of accessory options for consumers, likely at a lower cost, due to the increased competition.
The broader impact
USB-C and Thunderbolt integration opens new avenues for exploration, potentially creating solutions for global tech challenges.
PCs and gaming — Gaming laptops exploit USB-C's rapid data transfer to slash game loading times, providing immersive, latency-free experiences critical for gamers and VR enthusiasts alike. Virtual reality innovators harness this bandwidth boon for real-time sensor data processing, paving the way for the advanced systems of tomorrow.
Artificial intelligence — USB-C and Thunderbolt technologies are accelerating the transfer of large AI datasets, empowering faster analysis and iterating more complex algorithms. The technology also allows for quicker dataset transfer, enabling more rapid prototyping and deployment of AI models. The highly efficient throughput is being used to train autonomous vehicle systems and develop language models for natural language applications.
Healthcare — USB-C is revolutionizing diagnostic imaging, reducing the time interpretation time and fostering faster diagnosis and treatment. Advancements in medical education and patient care will change this landscape in years to come.
Avionics — Avionics has embraced USB-C for its ability to streamline power-management and data transfer operations. In-flight systems, satellite communications and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) control have already benefitted from the shift with higher efficiency and reduced maintenance costs. The switch to USB-C by major airlines for in-seat power and the use of innovative power controllers in military aircraft underscore the investment already being made to meet the demands in modern aviation.
Apple's embrace of USB-C is a strategic response to global technology trends. It heralds a new era of high-performance and adaptive computing. It will redefine possibilities across a broad spectrum of markets and industries. As we move forward, the full impact of this change will unfold, potentially driving innovation, standardization and a more streamlined experience across devices.
About the author
Emily Main holds a B.S. in Telecommunications and J.D. in Compliance Law. With extensive experience in the application of technology in business, science and finance, Main has contributed to numerous publications and conferences. She is passionate about exploring the challenges, innovations and trends related to networking and system infrastructure, and is dedicated to sharing the latest advances with professional engineering audiences.