The ultra-thin USB-C standard is looking like the future of data, video, and even power at this point. It’s already the only port on Apple’s MacBook revival, for example, and if history is anything to go by other computer makers could follow. Sometime soon, laptops and phones may do away with any port thicker than a millimeter or two.
Intel, it seems, wants USB-C to replace the headphone port. The firm is working on a standard that could replace the analog audio port on your laptop and phone. It’s an uphill battle: the 3.5mm port has been around since the 1960s. But as Anandtech is reporting, it’s important that an industry-wide standard is established. USB Type-C’s seemingly inevitable ubiquity makes it a strong possibility.
There have been attempts at digital audio before. For a time in the early 2000s, USB speakers were available if not common. Around the same time, Motorola used the same USB port on some phones for audio, charging, and data transfers. In that case, however, Motorola users were severely limited in their choice of headphones. They could basically only use something specifically designed for the phone.
That’s the scenario Intel is trying to avoid here. They want the USB-C protocol to become the standard that all headphone and speaker makers agree on, so that consumers who buy a headphone for their iPhone can use it with their PC — just like they do now. Think of it as a sort of HDMI for audio, but using an existing port.
The change could also bring digital features to headphones, which are right now largely analog. For example, headphones could include equalizers, such as a thermal sensor for fitness tracking. On-board amplifiers are also a possibility. It could also serve a copy-protection purpose: it’s currently superficial to use a headphone jack to copy audio, but a digital standard would change that.
Of course, in the short term any computer that lacks a headphone port is going to face an uphill battle in the marketplace. But USB-C is already becoming common, so in the short term USB-C headphones could gain a foothold, giving laptop and phone makers time to ditch the analog port.
In the 90s, USB ports replaced all kinds of things that previously had dedicated plugs. Keyboards and mice come to mind, as do printers and gamepads. Replacing the audio port with USB-C is far from a sure thing, but if Intel can establish a standard things could get interesting. And we’ll be watching.