Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

Are USB Ports Going Away?

//
At least two articles on the future claim that either USB sockets and/or Flash drives will disappear in 5 years or more. I use mine daily. Should I stock up on flash drives while I can?

The article(s) in question predict the USB port’s demise on two things: cloud storage replacing local, physical storage, and smaller mobile devices that leverage the cloud with no ability to connect to external storage devices.

The problem is, they’re absolutely right: much of the technology we take for granted and rely on today will be replaced by something.

The question isn’t whether it will happen; the question is: when?

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

The lifespan of USB

To address USB specifically, I don’t believe the end is anywhere close to near.

Connectors continue to change from time to time, necessitating conversion cables or adapters, and newer versions of the interface continue to get faster and faster, but ultimately, USB has become too ubiquitous for it to disappear any time soon.

USB ConnectorUSB is the most commonly-used interface for attaching just about anything to your desktop computer, your laptop, and in many cases, your mobile phone. Particularly for mobile phones and small electronic devices, and even some laptops using USB-C, it’s also become the most efficient and ubiquitous power-delivery system for recharging device batteries — to the extent that these days, hotels often provide multiple USB ports in your room to recharge portable devices.

I fully expect to be using USB-something well into the next couple of decades. After that, who knows? But I’m not worried about the devices I have today.

The problem with hoarding

On one hand, stocking up on flash drives sounds like a way to prepare for their eventual demise, whenever it happens.

There are two problems with that approach.

The first is that it’d be the equivalent of stocking up on floppy disks 20 years ago because you heard that the floppy drive was on the way out. Today you’ve be left with a pile of obsolete disks and very few drives to use them in. If the USB port truly is on the way out in a timeframe that will impact you, you might find yourself in a similar situation: plenty of flash drives, and nowhere to use them.

32MB Compact Flash cardThe second problem is that today’s “huge” is tomorrow’s “tiny”. This is particularly true for external memory and disk devices, including CF, SD, and uSD cards as well as USB thumb drives. Sure, you might stock up on whatever size is popular and cheap today, only to find that in 10 years, it doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity required for whatever you’ll be using it for then. I’ve got this fantastic little 32MB (megabyte) compact flash card that was originally primary storage on one of my older digital cameras. I can insert it into my current camera, but it doesn’t have the capacity for even a single image1.

Rather than hoarding them, better to just buy them as you need them. Your needs, as well as their capacity and speed, will no doubt continue to increase over time.

Obsolescence and betting on the right horse

Product obsolescence is generally market driven. As long as there’s a demand, and whatever comes along to replace it doesn’t create a more compelling demand, USB should around for a long time.

But in part, it’s also a gamble. As I said, someday the USB interface will join the floppy disk as an interesting relic of the past. I think it’s a safe bet that USB will be around for a while, but it is just that: a bet. I’ve certainly seen my share of odd technologies over the years which have not just fallen out of favor, but for all practical purposes just disappeared completely.

The difference that allows me to believe my bet on USB is more secure, or at least longer lasting, is simply ubiquity. Even if I still had it, there’s no device that would read the seven-track magnetic tape on which I carefully archived all my university projects. The biggest problem isn’t age or even device capability; it’s that I used a proprietary, non-standard format. Had it been in a more ubiquitous format, there’d be hope. (And I’d have converted it to a more contemporary format long ago.)

But, yes, technology changes. The good news is, it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s what’s allowed me to carefully copy over my backup CDs of recent years onto more capacious, more easily-accessed (and backed up) hard drives in recent years.

To me, the ultimate irony of all this is that there are solutions to disappearing storage technology like floppy disk and optical (CD) drives no longer built into your computer: external drives connected by — you guessed it — USB. (For example, here’s a USB 3.5″ floppy drive.)

As technologies change, I’m confident that transition-enabling converters and adapters will be part of that change, at least for the most common technologies.

And there’s no question that USB is common today.

Podcast audio

Play

Footnotes & references

1: The current camera has a 128GB memory card in it – over 4,000 times the capacity of the older 32MB card.

22 comments on “Are USB Ports Going Away?”

  1. Why does the consumer have less and less to say about how infrastructure goes on the decade time scale. Specifically, there is too big a push for IoT and cloud storage both of which robs privilege and privacy from the local consumer. The IoT is set to replace factory workers at the corporate scale by swapping people for automation. The cloud, until the hacking problem is solved, promises to steal all from everybody by making any intellectual property one firewall away. I firmly believe that until we make individual ownership absolutely guaranteed, these new technologies should NOT be shoved onto the general populace with another empty “nothing will go bad” promise.

    • When it comes to the Cloud replacing optical discs or USB flash drives, as long as there’s a market for those products, they won’t be going away. When it’s no longer profitable to manufacture a product, it will no longer be produced. The market is fully controlled by the consumer in this case. The minority consumer who wants a product which no longer is available isn’t being deprived by the manufacturers who operate to make money, they are being deprived by the majority of consumers who have moved on to other technology.

      As for automation replacing jobs, that’s a completely different issue than tech obsolescence which is the topic of this article.

  2. I have about thirty 3.5 inch floppy drives, never used, new. Any body want them? They were cheap when I bought them but they appear to now be worthless, or at least not useful.
    I don’t plan on having extra USB memory sticks around.

  3. I still have a variety of obsolete media that can no longer be accessed.
    8″ floppies
    5.25″ floppies
    6.5″ floppies
    CDs
    I remember when each of these progressed from a cost of $2+ each to $2 or $3 per hundred. Thus supporting your argument for no profit left. no availability. I still have drives with no available interface to connect them.

  4. I agree with Leo that I don’t think the USB interface will disappear any time soon. On the other hand, it surprises me that many new computers don’t come with DVD drives, as those still are useful for software loading (if you can’t or don’t want to download online) and to play movies on DVD or play music CDs (although streaming is becoming more popular). I also use DVDs for small backups sometimes, although the cloud is fast replacing both Hard Drive, DVDs and USB sticks for my primary backup. Technology changes fast. I still have an old tape drive and tapes for it, for computer backup. (My computer hardware probably would not even support the drive these days.) At that time, tapes had more capacity than other available media. Now some USB sticks probably have more capacity than a stack of those tapes. That wasn’t so long ago. I still have 5 1/4 inch floppies and 3 1/2 inch, but not many. I still have computers that will read both, but they are very rarely used. Probably has been a decade or two since I used a 5 1/4 floppy. I just got rid of several hundred 3 1/2 inch floppies. Something WILL eventually replace USB, but it won’t be soon. Wireless connections are more popular than ever, but I don’t think they will replace wired connections completely for a long time (now mostly USB). Don’t buy too much of any one thing, as it will soon be obsolete. USB sticks I bought just a few years ago now seem so small and aren’t good for much.

    • The phone/cable/internet conglomerates are also responsible for the demise of technology. If it was cheaper to get a faster internet connection, I would get something faster. But since it’s too expensive, I prefer to using USB memory sticks and external drives for backing up and transferring files. I can copy a 2GB set of files much faster using USB than it takes to upload the files to OneDrive and then download them with OneDrive on a different computer. So high internet pricing is actually a blessing in disguise, if you are one who wants to keep USB devices around longer.

  5. Don’t throw away those old floppy disks. A report on CBS 60 Minutes last year showed the US Air Force still using floppy drives in the Minute Man missle silos.
    Using obsolite technology is keeping the US missle defense system safe from hacking.

  6. I admit hoarding 1GB flashcards (30 @ $2 ea. ) but have no regrets. I use them for my elders that are still opposed to clicking links and such. They seem to relish to the simplicity of putting a physical object into their computers. So I mail a 1 G flashcard, which is enough memory for both our needs. Hopefully, when the cards are gone, they’ll appreciate today’s technology a bit more.

  7. Hi Leo,

    Could a damaged usb port or usb cable affect the files in a USB or external hard drive? I’m not saying mine is damaged, but I’m concered about dust or the possibility of bits of very small pieces of tissue paper inside (tried cleaning it a bit around the surface).

    Thanks

    • It’s exceptionally rare. The protocol that us used to transfer data includes error checking and would trip. Generally if there’s a connection problem it manifests as an inability to connect or copy, but not silently bad copies.

  8. Hi Leo, if a usb port or cable is worn out or damaged and I want to transfer photos and videos, is it possible for them to degrade in quality or lose pixels?

    Thanks.

    • Whenever data is transferred a hash is calculated and checked against the hash of the original file. If the resulting numbers don’t correspond, the transfer is tried again until they match. It’s called a CRC check (Cyclic Redundancy Check). So bad data won’t be transferred on a bad cable or poor network connection. It’s funny calling it a CRC check because that’s calling it a Cyclic Redundency Check Check 🙂

  9. Actually, older USB interfaces are, in a way, obsolete. We’ve gone through USB 1,2, and 3 and now we’re on USB C. USB 1 and 2 are pretty much obsolete in that most newer computers are generally coming with only USB 3 and C. Those latter 2 are backward compatible (meaning they can communicate with the older formats), but I haven’t seen any USB 1 or 2 flash devices or flash drives for sale. USB C is so different from the others that, in a way, it’s USB because it is a serial bus that is universally used, so maybe instead of disappearing, USB will constantly be going through transformations for many decades. Then again maybe not.

  10. You can still get floppy disks and drives. I don’t know anyone that uses them anymore. I teach in a technical university and I used to ask my students if any of them still used floppies. That last time one raised his hand was about ten years ago. He used them to hold his encryption keys. Somehow though, there must be some people using them for something.

  11. Hi Leo,

    Can continuously using a can of compressed air on my usb port degrade the metal connectors? And if it does, is there a possibility of files corrupting if I have a usb stick or HDD attached?

    Thanks

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.