A bit under a quarter of a century ago now, I was at the UK press launch for FireWire. It's a cable. I remember sitting in the audience as a speaker explained why I should be thrilled and I remember one single two-foot sample of FireWire cable being passed amongst us journalists. I remember it less because it was a Woodstock moment and more because I looked at this cable having no clue what I should be seeing and instead just passing it on to the next man or woman in the row. I probably said something about how I mustn't hog it all to myself.
It's probably fair to say that FireWire didn't excite anyone at the time very much more than it did me. I wasn't prescient, I wasn't an expert in the finer points of cabling, it was just a cable. Yet people get very concerned about cables and the ports they connect to –– and so do I.
Away from press launches, you only think of cables when you need them and it tends to be that you really, really need them. You've got to get this MacBook Pro working with that projector, you've got to backup a 3TB Fusion Drive and you haven't got all day, that kind of thing. Or you have a pile of hard drives and other peripherals but Apple has just decided to ditch the cables and ports that you've been relying on.
Apple does this. Apple does this a lot. It also tends to do it first: on the good side, this means that you can thank Apple for USB. If Apple hadn't gone for it then it might well have been forgotten and instead it's an industry standard. On the bad side, being first always means pain for people who find they have to buy new cables or new adaptors.
The odd thing is that usually Apple is right: usually the move to a new cable and port is in retrospect the right thing to have done. Not always, but often enough. The odder thing is that when other firms do it, there isn't a quarter as much fuss as when Apple does. Think of the genuine anger when Apple dropped the iPod 30-pin connector and introduced Lightning. The furore was such that other manufacturers cashed in, mocking Apple's one single cable change when some of them had made dozens of such changes.
Once again, if Apple does it, it matters. Once again, though, this is something that runs through the company's entire four-decade history.
Back in the day
When Steve Wozniak designed the Apple-1 computer, the closest thing to a port and cable it had was a set of instructions for where you should solder some wires. That would've been in 1976 and if there was a standard connector around the late 70s, it wasn't on what we then called microcomputers.
Maybe nobody expected us to want to connect anything, like keyboards, but surely nobody expected us to want to connect to networks. Except Apple. Right from the start, the Mac was designed to be networkable and from the start, it had RS-422 serial ports, the more standard DIN-9 from the start, replaced by the Mini DIN-9 round port on the Mac Plus. Maybe it should've had Ethernet but this was enough to mean the company could create the AppleTalk protocol to use these ports and the physical LocalTalk cabling system which was officially introduced in 1985.
It wasn't cheap and I have a memory of crawling through an office ceiling dragging what must've been Farallon PhoneNet cables instead. This was compatible with LocalTalk (and cheaper) and still meant I could connect a Macintosh SE to a LaserWriter printer. That would've been some couple of years after its introduction but LocalTalk lasted a long time: it was only dropped when the first iMac came out. Enterprising inventors still invented a way for that iMac to have a DIN-8 serial port internally, but it didn't last long.
Long before the iMac, though, Apple had moved on to ADB. The Apple Desktop Bus is well and rather fondly remembered as the way you connected your keyboard, mouse, joystick and so on. What gets forgotten is that ADB didn't appear first on the Mac: it was introduced in 1986 as part of the Apple IIGS. Still less known is that it was designed by Steve Wozniak.
He was always a proponent of the Apple II range but releasing it there first was probably more a case of what the next machine coming out of Apple happened to be. For as soon as ADB was done, it was on the next computer. Later it was also on the NeXT computer. The cables weren't cheap, but in a pinch, you could use a SVHS cable as an alternative to the $40 coiled cable.
Officially, ADB lasted until 1999 in the Blue and White G3 but actually it was later than that: you just couldn't see an ADB cable or an ADB port after that year. Inside the PowerBooks and iBooks, though, it was an ADB system that connected the trackpads. The last of those to use ADB was reportedly released in 2005.
Maybe the reason ADB and AppleTalk on serial boxes is remembered fondly is that it worked. You can't really say that about SCSI. Invented long before the Mac but only really after 1986 used as a standard for fast connections and moving a lot of data around, the Small Computer System Interface on desktop computers is mercifully long gone now.
It did do its job, quite often. You could connect hard drives to your computer via SCSI, you could connect all kinds of peripherals to it. What's more, you could daisy chain those devices so that your one port on the Mac had a device plugged into it but that device had another one plugged in to that.
On paper it made absolute sense and it was certainly faster than just about everything else while it was in circulation, but in practice Mac owners used to end up with mysterious and easy-to-lose chunks of metal that appeared to do nothing –– because they didn't. They were SCSI terminators and you had to put one on the end of the chain of devices or none of them would work. Only, it was alchemy: if you didn't have a terminator then the solution to problems you were having was to fit a terminator –– but if you already did, then the solution was to remove it.
You never knew which would work. I also remember now the legend of Mac users who had black SCSI terminators for the IIfx SCSI implementation that were in some way better at all this. Better didn't mean good, though, so I really should've been more appreciative when FireWire came along.
The FireWire Years
It's really called IEEE 1394 which you'll agree is a far more memorable name than FireWire, and that press launch I went to would've been in 1994. Those were the days. Flowers in our hair, Boyz II Men in our ears, and a two-foot FireWire sample cable in our hands.
Apple developed this in conjunction with an IEEE P1394 Working Group, and you just know they were a fun bunch, but curiously it didn't get a lot of traction even from Apple. The first Macs to use FireWire were in 1999 and even from then to its demise in 2014, it wasn't on every Apple computer.
FireWire was specifically intended to be the replacement for SCSI and strictly speaking its own replacement is Thunderbolt. Only, something else got in the way.
You've got a USB device. The Universal Serial Bus was developed in 1996 by companies such as Compaq, IBM and Intel, but it is everywhere today because of Apple. If you take a look at your iPhone right now, you won't see a USB socket but turn that Lightning cable around: the bit that goes into your wall plug is USB.
It seems as if it always is now, because it always is now. Whatever your device, whatever the connection at the end that plugs into that device, there is USB too. Or more recently, USB 3. FireWire's advantages for fast transfer have been wiped away by UASP on USB 3.0.
The original USB wasn't as fast as FireWire but it was good and it became a standard across every computer and every device so there comes a tipping point: every new device now has to have USB because every peripheral has one. It's a brave company that would walk away from USB now.
Speaking of brave companies
As it did with FireWire, Apple came up with a better name than the others involved in its design: Intel called this technology Light Peak. It was called that because it was going to be based on optical technology but Intel changed it to straight electrical later to save money and also to let the cables provide power to external devices.
Under the name Light Peak, Thunderbolt was demonstrated in 2009 as a system that connected to PCI Express. Later it was introduced on the 2011 MacBook Pro where it was connected via Apple's Mini DisplayPort. That's now changed with the latest Thunderbolt 3 containing USB-C, and the potential of cheaper passive, transceiver-free cables at lower speeds.
ADB, SCSI, FireWire and the rest were designed for and used in computers but in 2003 we got something else. The iPod came along and eventually it needed a new connector. At first it was only a physically different one: the Apple 30-Pin Dock Connector didn't look like a USB or FireWire cable but that's exactly what it was, albeit in a new shape and with extra control outputs.
From 2003 to 2011, that was it. The 30-Pin connector was all you needed because it fit everything. Every iPod, then every iPhone, then every iPad. When Apple ditched it in favor of the new Lightning port, there was hell to pay. It was completely unfair as the 30-Pin connector had lasted far longer than the equivalents from other manufacturers, but iPods were special and important and also bought in such numbers that there was a whole world of devices that used the 30-Pin model. You'll still see hotel rooms that have a bedside clock that includes an old-style 30-pin slot for you to pop your iPod in.
It was also unfair because the presumption was that Apple shouldn't ever change that cable because they had never changed it before –– but they had. The original iPod cable included FireWire features but those were dropped over time. Then video came to the iPod so video had to come to that cable. There are different 30-Pin cables and if it didn't cause as many obvious problems as swapping to Lightning did, it wasn't pain-free either.
Now four years on from the change, we're used to Lightning and all those stray 30-Pin cables you used to have around the house have magically become stray Lightning ones instead. Lightning is here to stay – or at least it is for a while. As an added bonus, the thrift stores are absolutely loaded with 30-pin docks now.
Everything must go
People do like to complain that the new MacBook is Apple taking things to extremes with the way that it has only one port. They are wrong. It's got two. The port that time forgot is a headphone jack and that will be with us forever. Or until this September, anyway, depending on who you listen to.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the opposite side to the port that reviewers can't forget. That one, the port that everyone talks about, is this USB-C, which is like the old USB but with some significant improvements. I don't think anyone questions that it's better for the long run as this one port is for power, for data, for adding storage devices, for connecting to projectors and monitors. The complaint is that there's just one of them.
So really USB-C is quite the success –– people just want more –– and that means the USB standard is still in play. Just about.
Still in play
USB Is still on the scene in its new guise but it's not the only type of port and cable that Apple still hangs on to. The company has stripped everything back from the MacBook, and that's surely what it is going to do with everything. But, for now, turn around an iMac and look.
You'll see USB, you'll see a token SD card slot for photographers. You'll also see Ethernet, hanging on in there like a trooper, and you'll see Thunderbolt. You'll see them and you'll use them and you'll always wish you had more USB sockets.
Yet after all these years and all these ports, Apple has a good, solid hate for cables. We wouldn't bet against even USB vanishing from future Macs if there were a way to do it. We're going to bet that there will never be another press launch for a wire, like we had in 1999.
-William Gallagher (@WGallagher