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USB-C, the Connector for the Next 20 Years: Behind the Scenes

USB Type C is the Yahoo Tech Technology of the Year. It is one really amazing connector, capable of replacing the power, video, audio, and data jacks of every phone, tablet, and laptop—from every company. One single way to charge everything you own. One cable to rule them all.

And there’s no upside-down. You can’t insert this cable the wrong way.

I found it amazing that an industry known for bitter rivalries and expensive, proprietary chargers could work together to come up with such a successful new jack. So I interviewed Jeff Ravencraft, President and COO of the USB Implementers Forum, and Brad Saunders, the Intel executive who led the charge to develop USB-C, to find out how it came to pass.

David Pogue: What does the name USB Type C mean?

Brad Saunders: When we designed the original USB spec 20 years ago, we had this idea that the host [usually the PC] would have a Type A connectors: the master of the relationship. Type A was the host, Type B was the device.

But the new cable is the same on both ends. We don’t need “micro” or “standard,” because there’s only one Type C connector. So I said, “Let’s just call this one Type C.” There’s no meaning behind the C other than that it’s the third one. You can blame it on me. That’s just what I happened to call it.

DP: Do we have to say “USB Type C?” Or will “USB-C” suffice?

Brad: USB-C and USB Type C are two trademarked version of the same name; they’re synonymous.

David: It seems implausible that all these arch-rival companies would lay down their swords and work together to design a new standard. How does that work?

Jeff Ravencraft: Standards work is kind of odd. USB really has a unique set of companies and engineers who focus on, “What’s the right technical solution?” instead of “My solution versus your solution.”

It’s coopetition. Companies have to cooperate, to get together to bake a pie, [to expand the total market]. But then once the standard is done, they have to compete for how big a piece of the pie they’re going to get.

David: During the design phase, are you ever aware that one company is kind of pushing its own agenda?

Jeff: It’s obvious that every company has its own agenda. They all have their own wants and needs and objectives on how they want it to end up.

They have to try to drive consensus between the parties while they’re doing the work. If someone has to make a call, there’s a process for that.

Fortunately, the promoter companies—Microsoft, HP, Intel, NEC, Philips, etc.—were generally like-minded about this technology.

David: Who contributed to the design?

Brad: You’d be impressed by the companies that work together on this. The promoter companies went out and found five or six connector suppliers that could collectively represent the connector ecosystem. Silicon suppliers who can tell us how to do effective silicon design. System [PC] builders. Software guys. It was an eclectic mix that covered all the areas. You tend to get the best ideas from a number of vendors.

David: What is the actual work like? Is it done over Skype? Email?

Brad: There’s a tremendous number of regular meetings, weekly, maybe 4-5 hours a week. There are phone calls, roll calls, tracking progress on all kinds of technical decisions.

We also meet face to face a number of times. In the heat of spec work, we might meet every six weeks: 60 or 70 people show up to spend three days hashing out ideas and getting things nailed down.

It won’t be right the first time. You have to address change requests and problems. They raise the issue, suggest a solution, the solution gets debated, and finally approved and notices are distributed.

David: How did the Type C project start?

Brad: Five years ago, we realized that the connectors we already had wouldn’t be capable of advancing the technology from a performance [speed] perspective.

At the same time, PCs were changing, becoming thinner and lighter—tablets, for example. The existing USB connector was just way too big. And it’s not as user-friendly as we’d like: you can plug it in the wrong way.

I’m not going to suggest that Intel invented this. There were some of us at Intel who did put together a lot of the ideas as a proposal. But a tremendous number of hours from many, many, many companies went into evolving what you have today.

David: How did you arrive at the size and shape?

Brad: We were bringing together people in PCs, phones, and newer technologies. It’s hard to get them all to see the same answer. There were a lot of seemingly conflicting requirements.

For example, the Micro B connector was the right size, the one that’s on your Android phone today. But a big PC maker looks at that design and says, “That can’t possibly be reliable for my PC.”

So we had to put a lot of effort in to make it robust enough, so you could plug it into the back of your PC and push it up against the wall, accidentally pushing on that cable and stressing it, and not break it.

The PC company wants very high performance. But the phone maker says, “I don’t need that kind of speed right away.”

We had to think hard about which requirements were ultimately the long-term requirements everybody would have to live with. It was a bit of a challenge.

David: What drives all this effort? Is there some percentage of it that’s about making the world better, improving our lives?

Brad: You don’t start that way. You start going after, “How am I going to make money on this?” If you can create something that will expand the market, then everybody will ultimately benefit by selling your product to a bigger market.

But over time, we became motivated by the fact that we could change the world from a green perspective. If we could standardize all these power supplies, we could reduce waste. We started to realize we could have a real impact.

David: Will there come a day when I can use, say, a Dell laptop charger to charge my smartphone?

Brad: Absolutely.

Jeff: The convenience for the consumer is phenomenal. At the airport, or in a meeting or conference room, you’re running low on laptop power—today, it’s hard to borrow someone else’s plug unless it’s the same computer.

Plus this green capability: Eliminating this electronic waste filling up landfills all over the world is another key parameter.

The way the world is going is fewer connectors, smaller size, fewer SKUs [stockkeeping units—that is, product models] on all of these devices. Managing the SKU on the manufacturing line, buying the parts—it all costs money. If you can do all of these things over a single connector, it’s a huge benefit to everyone.

These days, we’re even talking about eliminating the audio plug.

Brad: The 3.5-millimeter jack is actually bigger in volume inside your phone than our connector. The device makers would love to get rid of that jack. It makes your phone thicker than it has to be.

A lot of them will start out with adapters, but eventually, you’ll buy Type C headphones and earbuds.

David: Is there a sense among the engineers of, “Dudes! We created something pretty great!” Or is this a big yawn, something they’ve been through 100 times?

Brad: They hadn’t expected it when they started working on the project. But now that they see the result, everybody is really excited. They all believe they’ve done something wonderful.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.