By Stephen Schenck | April 17, 2013 7:07 AM
Smartphones are practically overflowing with untapped potential. These tiny, immensely powerful, general-purpose computers may entertain us, keep us connected with friends and family, and give us tools to make our jobs easier, but we’re only just scratching the surface; in the coming years, new hardware and software will no doubt lead us to using our phones for things we’ve yet to fully imagine.
With all they do, and all they’re capable of, it’s easy to lose sight of those things they just don’t do so well. One in particular has been bothering me for a while, because it seems like such an obvious thing to have smartphones do, yet no one’s taken the initiative to do it right: smartphones suck at USB, and the conspiracy theorist in me thinks there just might be a reason why.
Before I get too into complaining about what we don’t have, let’s look at what we do. There are precious few devices that do USB correctly. Unfortunately, all the ones I can think of are tablets, not smartphones. There’s a somewhat good reason for that, since as far as I’m concerned, the absolute, essential thing a device needs to properly support USB accessories is a full-sized USB type A port.
The Big Port
I’ll wait for you to finish laughing. And yes, I’m serious. USB is a big deal, largely because of that “U” for “universal.” It was a revolution when it arrived on the scene and was able to replace older serial, parallel, PS/2, Apple Desktop Bus, and all matter of other disparate connectors.
But for as ubiquitous as the micro USB port has become on smartphones (I will thank you for ignoring Apple and its culture of refusing to play nicely with others), that’s just not the same as the standard full-size connector. There are untold millions of keyboards, flash drives, and network interfaces ready to be plugged into a standard USB port; that couldn’t be less the case for the micro USB our phones currently support.
Not Good Enough
“But there are adapters,” you insist. Adapters suck. The best way to see a feature go unused is to require someone to carry around an adapter on the off chance he might want to use it.
What about Bluetooth? Yeah, that will work for things like mice and keyboards, if you have the foresight to purchase that hardware. Like I said earlier, smartphones are incredibly powerful, flexible devices; you want them to be able to come through for you in a pinch. When your desktop PC crashes hard and you need to get a ten-page proposal typed-up and emailed to your boss in an hour, you’re going to want to grab that USB keyboard from your desk and plug it right into your phone.
And flash drives? There may not be a more convenient way to move files around between computers of any operating system, on any network, without needing to think twice about cloud storage accounts or anything else – just plug and copy. Most of my friends even have little USB drives on their keychains, accompanying them everywhere they go. If for absolutely no other reason than to support these so widely used mobile miracles, smartphones need real USB ports.
Space Enough For All
OK, time to address the elephant in the room: size. Full-size USB needs it some space, a lot more than a micro USB port requires. The dimensions of the actual component for the port will vary based on manufacturer, but it needs to accept a USB plug that’s 4.5 millimeters tall. Since the port hardware itself will add even more onto that, some smartphone hardware is going to be disqualified straight away… but not all of it. A 9- or 10-mm-thick phone could handle it without sweating, and though it might be tight, I don’t think the 7 or 8 millimeter range is out of bounds altogether. That means that there are a lot of smartphone designs that could be accommodating USB ports – yet none do.
Why is that? It’s hard to deny that this would be a useful feature (a whole lot more so than NFC or IR support, for a good number of users), and in some cases it seems plenty practical enough to implement – so where the heck is it?
The Wicked Plot
Enter: my conspiracy theories. Like any good conspiracy theory, these bad boys don’t let themselves get too tied down with things like “evidence” or “following a logical progression of ideas,” but dang it if they wouldn’t explain a few things.
Maybe smartphone companies are trying to steer users away from hardware solutions, and towards software services. Hardware is a once-and-done deal, but services keep users coming back. Even if that service isn’t directly monetized, it’s still providing the company running it with valuable usage statistics. USB takes us out of the smartphone ecosystem; maybe it’s not there for a reason.
Maybe smartphone companies don’t actually want us thinking of our phones as general-purpose computers. There are certainly shades of that already with Google’s war on microSD – it talks about issues with mounting and where apps should store files, but it boils down to a desire to simplify things. Google doesn’t want Android users picturing their phones as tiny computers, with the complex directory structures that go right along with them, but as devices that “just work” – point-and-shoots, instead of SLRs.
I think that extends to other hardware ports, as well. It feels like we’re moving away from HDMI and MHL in favor of streaming solutions like Miracast. Enter wireless induction charging, and we’re approaching the day of a fully sealed-off smartphone. That may be convenient for waterproofing, but it sure doesn’t make for a very flexible piece of hardware.
I don’t know – if some company had tried putting standard USB ports on its phones a few times and those models bombed, I’d blame the market – you gave it the old college try, so no harm, no foul. But for such incredible potential to go almost wholly untapped… I’ve got to wonder if the forces that be are actively keeping down USB on smartphones.