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The quiet computing revolution built into Apple’s 12-inch MacBook

Phil Schiller, senior VP of worldwide marketing for Apple, speaks about Apple's new MacBook during an Apple event in San Francisco, California March 9, 2015. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

There’s going to be a lot of ink spilled this week about the Apple Watch. Some tech writers are also focusing on Tim Cook’s exclusive deal with HBO. And still others are concentrating on the redesigned 12-inch MacBook.

But a tiny feature of the new laptop may end up being just as critical a development for the computing world: the new USB port.

The small plug — technically called “the USB Type C” — is the only one on Apple’s latest Macbook. That’s provoking some groans among road warriors who often need multiple ports to charge their phones, connect to a flash drive and keep their laptops charged at the same time. But inconveniences aside, it’s easy to see how Apple is forcing a major change in the industry.

Why is USB-C so important? Versatility. It enables the transfer of power, data and even a video signal — all at the fastest rates. In the MacBook, that's allowed Apple to collapse all of the ports you'd ordinarily see on the side of a computer into one, going from this:

To this:

USB-C is like a super-powered version of the old familiar USB ports that have been on laptops for years. It’s reversible, meaning there’s no right-side-up to the plugs. It can deliver more power, faster — so you can connect large external devices like monitors and hard drives with it. And the energy can flow both ways, so that you can charge a phone from your laptop (as before) or you can tell your phone to charge your laptop.

Apple is so confident in USB-C’s capabilities that it’s provided only one USB-C port on the 12-inch MacBook. That’s potentially problematic for people who need to charge their laptop and also connect a monitor at the same time. The decision also portends a robust industry for after-market adapters and splitters.

More broadly, the single port signals that a tremendous shift is underway. Imagine if, on its more powerful MacBook Pros, Apple swapped many of the current ports for five or six USB-C ports. You’d be able to do a whole lot more with each of them.

USB-C ports are small enough to fit on many mobile devices. Nokia has already included it on one of its tablets. Soon we might be able to ditch all the different variations of USB plugs we see on smartphones today. It could mean the end of bulky AC adapters that you have to plug into the wall.

Apple is uniquely positioned to force this industry change because its hardware is everywhere, and its laptop segment is considerably strong. So the change to a single port is testing Apple's influence over the market. Yet it is likely, analysts say, that device manufacturers — whether they want to or not — will be supporting USB-C.

All of this also suggests Apple’s proprietary connector, Thunderbolt, may be in trouble. Apple pitched Thunderbolt as a high-powered, high-bandwidth alternative to USB just a few years ago, intending for it to become an industry-wide standard. But so far it hasn’t gained much traction beyond the peripherals sold in the Apple Store.

USB-C is likely to spread more widely where Thunderbolt failed. For one thing, it’s backed up by the USB Implementers Forum, the standard-setting body that’s been responsible for approving all the previous types of USB to date. The fact that USB-C has already shown up in non-Apple devices suggests there’s much more of a future for USB-C.