Why Apple Could Leave Ports Behind

By Brian Barrett on at

While rumours of a 12-inch MacBook Air have been merrily percolating these last few months, the most interesting aspect of Apple's upcoming redesign turns out not to be the size after all. It's the apparent abandonment of ports.

As Cupertino Whisperer Mark Gurman showed today, the rumoured redesign isn't just a matter of size. Apple has also stripped the MacBook Air of most of its—already sparse—ports. Where there was once (on the 13-inch MBA) a home for a MagSafe connector, Thunderbolt, SDXC card slot, a headphone jack, and two USB 3.0 ports, the 12-inch MBA has a lone USB Type-C (a reversible version that can also be used for charging) port and an obligatory headphone jack. Instead of hardware connectivity, presumably, you'll be expected to use a smorgasbord of cloud and wireless connectivity.

This seems dramatic, but it's also perfectly fine and good and probably foreshadowed. Apple spent the last year introducing features specifically designed to let you circumvent wires altogether. Handoff, to let you move seamlessly between computer and phone. iCloud Drive, for cloud-based file storage. AirDrop, which has been around even longer, to let you share files among Apple devices with ease. It's already entirely possible to go weeks without having to hook up your MBA to anything besides the wall, much less multiple things, much less to complete tasks that require Thunderbolt-level prowess.

Besides, the MacBook Air in particular isn't designed for the daisy-chaining power users of the world. It's an affordable everyone machine, and not everyone needs ports. So, sure, sounds good. Except! Except.

While on paper the transition to a nearly portless world seems perfectly fine, there's nothing in Apple's recent history that suggests it's ready to put so much weight on its cloud and software offerings. Handoff is a great idea that barely worked for most people when it launched. iCloud had a ferociously rocky first few years; it's gotten better recently but still isn't nearly as seamless as advertised. And more generally, OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 were both rife with problems when they launched, some of which remain unresolved.

Why Apple Could Leave Ports Behind

Apple's bugs aren't exceptional; they're common on every platform. But when those bugs potentially affect your day-to-day workflow—and you don't have enough wired connectivity options to act as a failsafe—they start to make you nervous. Doubly so if you have an Android phone, which doesn't even have access to the bulk of those Continuity solutions in the first place.

The good news is, assuming the images published by 9to5 Mac are accurate (plans change, there could be ports aplenty!) you'll be fine. Even if Apple's cloud woes continue, there are plenty of cross-platform options to turn to instead. Need more than one USB port? There are USB hubs for less than a tenner. Sick of the whole Apple ecosystem trap? There are plenty of great, cheap Windows PCs and Chromebooks out there to choose from instead, with plenty of ports (and ecosystems and bugs and annoyances of their own).

We've also been through this before, a few times. In 2008 Apple launched the first MacBook Air without an optical disc drive, depriving a generation of their CDs and DVDs in a time when CDs and DVDs were still alive and well. It was inconvenient, sometimes, for some people, but ultimately all it did was remind us that we didn't need discs after all. It's not entirely analogous, but 30-pin connectors met a similar sudden fate.

Both transitions were abrupt, sure, but there's no such thing as a gradual removal. Something's either there or it's not. Multiple ports are here now. Soon they won't be. Someday, maybe sooner than you'd expect, they'll be gone altogether.