Making Everything Wireless Was a Mistake
As ports disappear and cables are replaced with all things wireless, are we really sure we made the right choice? And was it a choice at all?
I keep a small box in the closet behind my desk that I call my “Box of Shame.” It’s made from cheap Dollar Store plastic, the lid barely fits, and it’s starting to fall apart, but really I’m ashamed of it because of what’s inside.
It’s cables. Endless amounts of cables, from old phones, tablets, game consoles, controllers, smartwatches, and at least one virtual reality headset. Material I collected before I started writing about technology for a living and after, hopelessly tangled together.
As more and more devices have become wireless, I’ve had less and less reasons to open the box, other than to feed more cables into its maw. You see, while major manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have removed charging bricks from their boxes for environmental reasons, cables have persisted just about everywhere.
Wireless technology, from the Bluetooth that connects your mouse or headphones, to the Qi charging that keeps you from ever having to plug in your phone, has led the common cable to play second fiddle, even if it frequently provides a better experience. A change that hasn’t been chosen so much as it’s been chosen for us.
I enjoy the convenience, sure, but what have we lost?
Remember the headphone jack? Being able to plug in a pair of wired headphones into a 3.5mm jack on just about any electronic device that could play media files was an option I don’t think I ever realized I’d miss until it was gone. It’s easy to blame a luxury company that cares more about a nebulous sense of elegance than reliability — Apple claimed removing the headphone jack required “courage” when it announced the iPhone 7 — but considering how many devices are sold without them in 2023, from laptops to smartphones, most companies were willing to ditch them.
The replacement for wired headphones, wireless Bluetooth earbuds with various levels and qualities of noise cancellation, are a poor substitute. Bluetooth, despite regular updates, is not perfectly reliable. It’s subject to the same rules of physics as everything else. You can get out of range and stop hearing the podcast or album you were enjoying. Higher-quality files will be streamed at a lower quality. Connecting something over Bluetooth and knowing whether it’s connected is not the same as seeing whether a cable has successfully been plugged into a jack. It is more convenient, but in many ways, sucky.
Worse, the solutions to Bluetooth’s natural shortcomings are often proprietary. The W1 system-on-a-chip Apple introduced in the original AirPods is designed to make connecting to other Apple devices over Bluetooth more efficient and fast, a privilege naturally not available to anything using vanilla Bluetooth. The follow-ups, Apple’s H1 and H2 chips, haven’t changed that equation, even as they’ve adopted newer versions of Bluetooth and supported more features like noise cancellation and “Hey Siri”. Google tried to do the same thing with Fast Pair on Android, which at least has the advantage of being included on a more open platform, but a wireless system allows for more discrimination and incompatibilities than a classic port and cable ever could.
Charging is one of the few places where the anti-cable sentiment hasn’t fully set in because wireless charging hasn’t consistently matched wired charging speeds. Consider the Redmi Note 12 Pro+, which can charge itself to 100 percent battery capacity in just five minutes over a wired connection. Why would you ever try to wirelessly charge that phone when you have even faster charging options available to you?
Qi wireless charging was welcome on the iPhone not because it’s any faster than a wired connection, but because at least switching to wireless charging gets you an open standard to go with your “convenience.” Ironically, one reason Apple might be reluctant to switch to USB-C to meet the European Union’s demands is just how many third-party accessories use the Lightning connector Apple’s forced on people. In fact, the company’s reticence to fold to regulators’ demands has led to frequent speculation that Apple might abandon ports entirely now that it has a slightly better alternative to wireless charging in MagSafe. Improvements to cable alternatives sure seem to lead to more proprietary lock-in.
The superiority of the cord is probably most obvious when you’re transferring data. Yes, cables themselves can be rated at different speeds, but in my experience, connecting my camera to my computer over a USB-C cable to transfer photos is almost always better than the wireless, app-controlled solution manufacturers like Sony push. I don’t have to pull out an SD card I’ll easily lose, and I usually have a USB-C cable on standby for charging the other things cluttering my desk.
The benefits of a physical connection are obvious. The PS5 is more powerful than the Snapdragon XR 2 you’d find in the Quest 2, so it only makes sense that the PSVR 2 is able to play better-looking games. Any inconvenience of being wired into a home console is outweighed by what that wired connection lets the PSVR 2 pull off visually. At least in my opinion.
The push to move data wirelessly, we’ll call it “Cloud Storage Bias,” is directly connected to the trend of removing ports from computers, just like it is on phones. The dark design path Apple went down in the 2010s with its MacBooks is built on the idea that the iCloud, AirDrop, and the ubiquity of USB-C could take the place of just letting people use HDMI and USB-A cables. The company’s return to including ports people actually use on their laptops is proof that just doesn’t work. People like plugging stuff in and that’s okay!
It’s always about control
The tech industry’s intolerance for creating physical connections between the things we own is about control, plain and simple. A device that allows for no user input other than the mediated interface of a touchscreen, mouse, or keyboard lets software rule what you can and can’t do.
The removal of ports and cables is never entirely about making something novel, convenient, or feel “magical.” It changes how you interact with things you own outright, and turns devices from physical objects with real utility into portals to software experiences — commonly ones that are subscription-based. I sound like a crackpot spelling it out, but it’s true. I really shouldn’t feel ashamed because I haven’t organized my cables, I should be ashamed I’m not using them.