Samsung released the Galaxy Note 7 device this week and amongst the many changes and improvements to the former Note line, there is one important improvement that could have consequences for the Android industry: Samsung adopted USB Type-C. This is a new standard and a replacement for the MicroUSB port, which has been used on nearly every Android device (until some adopted USB Type-C) imaginable since they were first produced. It's also been used on the majority of smartphones manufactured in the last decade with one big selling exception: Apple. Part of the reason why manufacturers have adopted the same standard is because of legislation, such as in the European Union, stating that manufacturers had to use a standard for 'phones because this would solve cable waste and excessive charging by manufacturers to build and sell their proprietary chargers. USB Type-C offers a number of key advantages – one is that the cables and ports are designed to handle higher power, meaning they can recharge our devices quicker. This in turn means that USB Type-C is a suitable laptop as well as 'phone charger standard, which means over the course of a few years our laptops, Chromebooks, tablets and smartphones should move to USB Type-C. We may even see low powered set top boxes and desktop computers powered by USB-C as well. It's unclear if wearable devices will adopt USB Type-C as these tend to have less space available for the charger infrastructure.
A second advantage is that the cables do not need to be inserted the correct way around. Suddenly, plugging your smartphone in at night without turning on the light just became a whole lot easier! Furthermore, the cables have a USB-C at both ends and are fully reversible: there is no "master" and "slave" differentiation along the cable. This means power can flow in either direction down the cable, which will make it easier for manufacturers to double up a tablet as a secondary battery for a smartphone, for example. Data transfer rates can also be improved, depending on the USB controller technology. Adapters can be bought for the USB-C end to convert this to a MicroUSB but when used, the power output of the cable should be capped at 2.1 A to avoid damaging it or the smartphone attached.
Apple have famously already managed a change in charger standard, moving from the old style 30-pin charger standard to the new style Lightning connector with the introduction of the iPhone 5. At the time, many (iPhone customers) moaned how Apple had led them up the garden path with the old style interface and how the new standard port would cause the earth to stop rotating. This is surely exaggeration, but overnight many accessories were rendered unusable (either practically or literally) because even with the adapter, the device didn't work well with over an inch of elegantly refined Apple plastic protruding out of the bottom of the 'phone. Apple's new standard port did consign a whole bunch of accessories for use with only the older iPhone models, the iPhone 4S and older, but this did not slow down sales of the iPhone. Instead, consumers replaced their old accessories – their chargers, car kits, music docks – or moved to a wireless world. Customers had to buy the licensed Apple Lightning-compatible charger cables, which were £30 in the UK when launched but have become cheaper over time. We are yet to see Apple invent wireless charging, but their smartphone can happily stream music wirelessly over a Bluetooth connection.
Adopting a new standard charger is a potentially painful experience. Luckily for the USB to MicroUSB world, things might not be as painful as before because most manufacturers have included a separate USB wall adapter and cable, meaning that with a new cable, we can re-use our existing wall plug. It won't be ideal in the short term as USB Type-C can recharge devices at a much faster rate but it does mean customers only need to buy the cable. The cables – which have been available for about a year and are still expensive – will come down in price. As with Apple, there will be a short period of quality and standard adjustment. We've already seen how not all USB-C charger solutions are the same in the Android world. These differences in quality will even out over time.
There are a number of manufacturers already using USB Type-C. We've seen Google's own Nexus family switch to it last year, and this year flagship models from HTC, OnePlus and LG have already switched to the newer standard. Samsung's Galaxy S7 is the standout device that retained the MicroUSB charger standard, which earlier in the year was frustrating. If Samsung weren't going to adopt the new standard, it meant limiting those third party companies making USB Type-C accessories. This has now changed with Samsung moving the Galaxy Note 7 to the newer standard. It isn't expected that every other Samsung device will immediately switch from MicroUSB to USB Type-C, but it is fully expected that Samsung's next Galaxy S will use USB-C. It's also expected that the newer standard will drop through the rest of Samsung's range reasonably quickly so that by this time next year, all devices will use the newer standard.
What the Galaxy Note 7's USB Type-C means is that more third party manufacturers will start building accessories to follow the market leader. In the short term, we may see an uptick in the sale of MicroUSB to USB Type-C adapters, but this will ease off as more and more devices move to the newer standard. And whilst Samsung is not the whole smartphone market, it commands a significant market share (the latest reports show that it is around a quarter). Apple will do their Apple thing in the corner, and the Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and other platform devices are sure to follow Samsung's lead into the USB Type-C route. This is good news for the industry even if it comes at the expense of a little short term pain. For the next two to five years, many households are likely to see a blend of USB Type C, MicroUSB and Lightning connectors. Apple are unlikely to adopt USB Type C, but otherwise we will see a consolidation of charger infrastructure.