Imagining a totally wireless MacBook or iPhone

Someday one port will seem like one port too many.

usb c 2

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My latest project has been cleaning out my home office, and you know what I’ve found?

Cables. Lots and lots of cables.

USB cables, mini-USB cables, micro-USB cables, 30-pin dock connector cables, monitor cables, and what I can assume is only a rat king constructed entirely of power cables.

I would like nothing more than to dump the lot of these cables into the fires of Mount Doom and watch them melt slowly away, and though I’ve tried to at least excise the ones that I probably won’t ever need again—when the heck am I ever going to use an internal IDE cable?—I find myself keeping many of them because…well, because it never hurts to be prepared.

But more importantly because, despite the seeming promise of our wireless future, we’re not quite there yet.

No ports in a storm

When Apple released the redesigned MacBook last year, much of the criticism focused on the single USB-C port, used for both power and connecting peripherals. That same sticking point has reared its head once again as Apple updated the MacBook and didn’t add in another port. (It was always unlikely for the company to backtrack a year into a new product, but for some people hope springs eternal.)

The MacBook shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise: Apple’s trend has always been towards reducing the number of ports on its devices. Hence the reliance on USB in the original iMac, the attempt to shift to Thunderbolt and its multi-peripheral capabilities, and of course, the Lightning port on iOS devices. It’s culminated in the Apple Watch, which has no ports at all, and it’s not hard to imagine Apple aiming for a similar goal on many of its other devices.

Of course, a large part of what’s made the reduction in ports possible is an increasing trend towards wireless peripherals and networking. Cellular networking, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth have taken over in a number of places that used to be cord-dominated. I’m typing this on a Bluetooth keyboard with a Magic Trackpad next to it. I’ve got a pair of wireless headphones for the gym, and a couple wireless speakers in the house. I have a Bluetooth audio setup in my car. I just bought a Bluetooth keyboard case for my iPad Air 2. And so on.

But as good as the wireless revolution has been, it’s not without its problems.

Wobbly wireless

Lately my fourth-generation Apple TV has been plagued with a particular woe: It seems to lose track of its wireless network connection at random intervals. One moment I’ll be watching Daredevil, the next, I’ll get frozen video and a spinning icon on my TV; returning to the home screen will show that none of the other apps load either. The only way to fix the Apple TV was to disconnect it from my Wi-Fi network and reconnect, or to restart the entire device. (Thankfully, restarting is much faster than it was on older Apple TVs.)

I spent a while troubleshooting this: reinstalling apps, resetting the network settings, even going back to factory defaults, but none of those seemed to fix the issue. Either it’s a defective unit or there’s a bug in tvOS’s Wi-Fi. Finally, the other day, I realized I had a spare port open on my router, and decided to plug it in via Ethernet. To date, no more problems.

I’ve also dealt with Bluetooth peripherals that randomly disconnect, an AirPlay speaker that frequently loses its connection, and an iMac that also suffers from bouts of not quite getting along with my Wi-Fi network. In short, wireless technology at times still feels awfully tenuous, especially when it comes to critical functions that we rely on every day.

Wired connections aren’t perfect either: I’ve run into the occasional bad cable in my time and, as I said up top, you have to deal with having wires running everywhere or lying fallow in drawers. But there is something simple and satisfying about plugging in a device and having it work. When I run into problems on my headless Mac mini, say, with Bluetooth peripherals or screen sharing over Wi-Fi, I still default to plugging in a USB keyboard.

In the end, my head says wired connections…but my heart says wireless.

Our untethered future

Still, the wireless trend is unbeatable. If current rumors are to be believed, Apple is strongly considering removing the headphone jack in the next iPhone release—a step it didn’t take on the MacBook—and either relying on Lightning-based audio output or wireless headphones. It’s not hard to imagine built-in wireless charging making its way from the Apple Watch to the iPhone eventually.

And really, despite its occasional problems, I wouldn’t trade in our untethered lifestyle for anything. For all the flak that mobile devices get for interfering with our experience of life, being able to bring them with us wherever we go has had an equally positive effect of freeing us from the confines of our desks. Technology, after all, isn’t good or bad—it’s what you do with it that counts.

We’re already using far fewer wired peripherals than we were a decade or two ago, and it’s a safe bet that most of what we’ll be doing ten years from now won’t require as many cords and wires as it currently does. The MacBook and even the rumored forthcoming iPhone are, as always, Apple just a little bit ahead of the curve—skating, puck, etc. While I, and others, may not be ready for that future now, it’s not hard for me to see a point when I will be.

Plus, on the upside, I can finally get rid of all those darn cables.

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