using a cable too difficult for reporter

This one is going to be quite off the topic of research – well, maybe it links in with digital humanities. The digital part. The part that uses computer hardware.

But seriously? Writing a whole article about your own incompetence (and ignorance) when it comes to hooking your laptop’s headphone jack up to your stereo? With one cable? When what you should be talking about is the new Thunderbolt connection in MacBook Pros?

Spare us! Please!

But since you won’t, at least indulge me in a response.

In theory, your laptop yearns to connect to your television, but if you’ve ever tried to hasten this coupling you know it requires a lot of gear. The laptop isn’t satisfied with the same connections that every other device uses to get with your TV; no, it needs a computer graphics cable at minimum, and perhaps an adapter or two. It gets even worse when you need several devices to play together. If you want the picture from your computer screen to appear on your TV while the audio goes to your receiver, you’ll need another cable and probably another adapter. By that point, you might as well watch your movie on your laptop.

Okay, now. I have two laptops that I regularly connect to my TV. Guess how many cables it takes? ONE. I’ll admit that my iBook does require an adaptor, because it’s Apple and they enjoy charging you $40 for something that should come with the product – but wait, unlike my iPod charger, this actually did come with the product for free. So I plug one end of a cable that came with my TV into my laptop, and the other end into the port on my TV labeled, helpfully, “computer.”

I forgot. Then I have to go through the grueling step of plugging a regular headphone cable (which also came with my TV!) into the headphone jack of my laptop to get the sound to come out of my stereo. At this point I’m almost breaking a sweat. I might as well just watch TV shows on my 12″ laptop screen (or 9″ netbook – no wonder I’m motivated). I just can’t get these gadgets to work together!

The author does have a fair point, after he acquaints us with his complicated, cable-filled life.

Why is it so hard to get gizmos to play nice with each other? […] The only reason they require different cables is that they were hatched in different parts of the tech industry, where different standards, and different business requirements, prevail. It’s a legacy problem—a system that persists for no reason other than the fact that it’s always been that way.

I wouldn’t quite go this far in trying to find a reasonable explanation, because it’s far simpler and stupider than this. Companies don’t work together because they don’t have to. This is why, with the average desktop computer, we get a bunch of parts that don’t really work well together and for which we have to go find drivers. I used to build my own computers and honestly, we’re lucky that different video cards even plug into the same motherboards with the way electronics go. (1)

At least we have standards as far as HDMI, composite, and component. And the cables to hook your laptop up to an external display … wait. This sounds an awful lot like there are standards out there to make all of your electronics play nice together.

Much as I am not a fan of the ridiculousness of random standards implementation (can you explain to me why my fairly nice TV came with no component in, so I had to pay almost $100 for a component -> HDMI converter for all of my video game consoles?) – at least do a little research before you grab your basket of cables and start trying to plug everything in to each other by brute force. Electronics companies are even kind enough to label composite and component with colors. Seriously. Does this take more than 10 minutes to figure out?

In the world of Slate, it does. Can I start writing the tech articles instead? Please? I think my anecdotes might be a little less in the way of proud ignorance and general awkwardness.

Let’s move on and talk about the pros and cons of wired versus wireless connections for everyday household data transfer and “gizmos.”

But perhaps it won’t be this way forever. Over the past few years, Intel has been developing a new cable standard that’s designed to replace all of the different cables that now tangle up our lives.

Given that every article I’ve come across describing Thunderbolt in detail states right at the beginning that non-Thunderbolt devices (such as USB, Firewire, and HDMI connections) will all need adaptors to use it. The irony. This fact is not mentioned in this article.

I’ll spare you another quote (am I just sounding mean at this point? shooting fish in a barrel?). The point of this article is to get us thinking about whether wireless is in fact the future, and we’d better kiss our wired connections goodbye once it speeds up enough to be really viable.

I agree that the average American out there is all about wireless. I feel like I’m in the dark ages when I tell people I have my desktop hooked up via ethernet cable to my modem so I get faster speeds than over wireless. An ethernet cable? What is that?

Here are some downsides to wireless, however. It will never escape interference from all of the other signals in the air – wireless from your neighbors, and from devices like cordless phones. But that is not the big one: and that is security. Your wireless network is probably not too hard to break into, and your data flying through the air is a security risk. This probably doesn’t matter as much for something like your XBox and your TV (which strangely doesn’t get any praise for hooking up via a single HDMI cable, which can also carry audio – a nice development). But for data you’re transferring from one computer to another? Personally, I don’t really want to do that via wireless.

What doesn’t help matters is that most people are not even aware of the many security risks they face on a daily basis – especially not when it comes to wireless connections. The risks of public Wi-Fi are at least making the news with the release of FireSheep, but how many people do you know who even use strong passwords or a different password for any one of their accounts? With this level of general apathy combined with ignorance, I don’t really want to think of a future that’s conducted completely over a wireless connection.

So what does that future look like?

Over the next few years, then, we’ll see a race between compatible wired connections like Thunderbolt and very fast wireless specifications like WiGig. Which will win out? In the long run, my money’s on wireless.

Honestly, I do have to agree that people will start demanding more and more on a wireless connection. After all, even I am using wireless to stream Netflix to my TV. I’m not a wireless hater per se.

However – do we necessarily have to anticipate a race? Can wired and wireless technologies not continue to work alongside each other, for both different applications and different people’s preferences, just as they do today, in their slower incarnations? I would come down on this halfway conclusion if you pressed me on it. At the least, I hope that’s where we come down. Because a world of fast wireless and faster wired connections sounds great.

One final thought. The author speculates that Thunderbolt won’t be adopted soon as a standard because device makers won’t be on board, instead clinging to USB and HDMI. I have to raise USB as an example to the contrary: I remember that when USB 2.0 came out, device makers were pretty much completely on board. At the same time, Firewire didn’t really catch on in its time, despite being a much better technology than its competitor, USB 1.0. That was another Apple specialty.

In fact, I think the future of Thunderbolt is going to be played out on PCs, not devices in general. Firewire was generally an Apple thing. But as we all know, the majority of people out there – the vast, vast majority – use Windows and do not buy Apple hardware. The question is really going to be, will PC makers in general integrate Thunderbolt into their machines, particularly laptops? Will Windows support it well enough that it feels as natural as USB 2.0? If the answer is yes, then I think we will see Thunderbolt for the foreseeable future. But if not, I think we’re going to see it go the way of Firewire.

In the end, Thunderbolt’s real potential killer is not going to be faster wireless; it’s going to be the non-Mac status quo.


(1) I’ll admit that now I have a Mac, and mostly enjoy the benefits of vertical integration. Yes, my operating system may be tied to a totally unmodifiable giant metal case with a computer somewhere inside of it, and I may not be able to replace or change parts later (which does actually bother me), but I have to say it’s nice to have software and hardware that plays nice together in a really extreme way.

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