Today in Tedium: Two years ago, I explained the evolution of dongles in the best way I could, how these weird connectors came to be, and why it never seems like our dongle drawer will ever empty. And honestly, when a new dongle emerges, I kind of just want to hand out a prize to the company that made it. And today, I’m handing the flowers to Apple, which just released an unnecessary female-lightning-to-female-USB-C connector because it inexplicably chose not to upgrade the Apple Pencil on the lowest-end iPad, which now uses USB-C. But the recent decision that the European Union made to require everyone to use the same port standard must have Apple out of sorts, hence the weird dongle. But I have to wonder, is this just the dongle’s last hurrah? Will the awkward transition period end these half-solutions for good? Probably not. But given the many shifts in the market in the past two years, I feel like I need to re-assess my thesis: Will dongles eventually go away? Today’s Tedium ponders the dongle some more. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF is the new iPad with USB-C that for some reason relies on an input device that doesn’t support USB-C.
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“It would be a good idea to label your dongle so that you know which program it belongs with. The dongle idea appears to be catching on, and I already have had a little trouble keeping my dongles separated.”
— Infoworld reviewer Philip Robinson, discussing the use of a dongle in relation to an educational Commodore 64 game called Kentucky Derby in a 1983 review. Robinson notes that the method can effectively limit copying, though it isn’t fool-proof. “Unless you and the interrupt for the dongle in the program, and until you are willing to construct dongles for all copies of the program, you can’t easily copy and distribute this program,” he wrote. Famously, crackers were able to figure out ways past these primitive dongles.
Let’s briefly investigate a claim that a British company coined the word “dongle”
In the early months of 1982, a man named Mike Lake wrote a letter to the British magazine Personal Computer World making a claim that he and his colleagues invented the word “dongle” in the context of computers. I am going to publish the letter in full here under fair use and comment:
Dongles v thingies
I have noticed over the past few months that the word ‘dongle’ has been appearing in many articles with reference to security systems for computer software.
Before the word abandons its inverted commas and formally enters the buss-word dictionary of computing, I would like to stake a claim as cooriginator of the term.
At a meeting held about 18 months ago in the development department of Analog Electronics of Coventry, Peter Dowson, author of Wordcraft 80, Graham Heggie, managing director of Analog and myself, spent a pleasant hour devising the ‘thingy’ that we were to use to protect Wordcraft 80. When the device had been designed the conversation went something like this:
Graham: ‘What are we going to call this dongle thingy?’ (Dongle being Graham’s word for anything without a name, or for anything whose name had been temporarily mislaid!)
Peter & myself: ‘That will do—it’s a dongle.’
The three of us therefore claim to be the originators of the term as applied to computer protection systems. A regrettable side effect has been to deprive Graham of one of his favourite ‘whatsit’ words. We would welcome suggestions for a new word for him to use.
Mike Lake, Derby
So, here we are with a credible claim very early in the history of the dongle that such a device had been invented and coined by a specific group of developers. And there is evidence, including of the photographic and journalistic kind, that this software both existed, and that it shipped with a dongle. It was published by a popular magazine for enthusiasts during the era, a magazine that itself only published the word “dongle” for the first time just three months prior:
Now there are some neat ways to protect software. Unfortunately, these are nearly always in addition to the above (no-source code, the contract clause, officious documentation/upgrade service, program copy booby traps). The fashionable thing to do today is to use a ‘dongle’; you buy a small box to fit on the cassette port for each machine you want to run your package on and you can make as many copies of the software as you need. It is a much better solution than the PROM chip that came with some earlier products which got bent if you kept picking it in and out of the printed circuit board.
It is highly probable that Lake saw this article and decided to mail in a reply, just to make sure others were aware that the evidence had been set aside. After all, he wanted it noted for the historic record—which makes sense, given how popular the dongle became!
But there are even stronger pieces of evidence supporting the claim that appeared in magazines of the period—particularly in the pages of Byte in October of 1981, a story which covered the discussion of software piracy in the United Kingdom, a significant enough issue in this market that the story ran over eight separate pages. The piece is written in such a way that, even though it is about the topic that the dongle is related to, the device itself is briefly mentioned and treated as extremely novel:
The case of Microchess shows how severely amateur copying can damage software sales. Before the International PET Users’ Group published a method of copying Microchess, the game program had sold more than 100,000 copies. After publication of the copy method, sales dried up. By contrast, the semi-professional program Wordcraft enjoyed a dramatic increase in sales when the protection routine known as the “Dongle” was incorporated.
But despite being a fairly long piece about software piracy in the U.K., the dongle is only mentioned once, implying the concept was not widespread at the time.
The dongle is also mentioned in a review of Wordcraft that was published in September of 1981 in Commodore Club News, a review that also independently mentions Dawson and Lake, offering a degree of verification that the two did work on the software separate from the first-party claim that was sent in via a letter to the editor 40 years ago.
The other half of this discussion is confirming that the term has not seen prior use in relation to computing. To be clear, they have not claimed to have invented the hardware-based copy protection scheme in that letter, but the terminology tied to it, and I will be looking with that in mind. I have researched the word in a number of major sources, including Newspapers.com archive, the Newsbank archive, Google Patents, and numerous other sources. Looking at mainstream non-specialist sources, the first mention I find of dongles is in a British newspaper, The Guardian, in 1983, in an article about computer piracy:
On the business side, dongles—devices which enable the computer to read the particular program it guards and make copies worthless because they cannot be used without it—have been successful but they have added costs and, more importantly, they have taken an expansion port that could be used for something more useful to the user. And, again, there was a man who made a multi-purpose dongle …
It took a while for the term to take off outside of technical circles. It first appeared in an American newspaper in 1984; the first mention of the term in The New York Times in any topic related to computers is in 1995. The circumstantial evidence is strong that the term emerged from the British computing market in the early ’80s, then went global—which supports the claim that “dongle” was invented by the makers of Wordcraft.
So why am I writing this? Well, after I found the letter-to-the-editor with the initial claim, I decided to check in on it because I had never seen this claim before, and in that process, I ran into the Wikipedia talk page for “Dongle,” where I spotted a rough-and-tumble 2019 debate regarding the word’s origin, with a user named Trusley Mike, who appears to be the same Mike Lake I quoted above, sharing a lot of evidence that was clearly primary-source in nature, but then running into the gauntlet of the “editor who felt the contributor was too close to the material.”
The fatal mistake he made is summed up in a comment Lake included on the piece: “All definitions are made up by someone so I made up one and invited comments.”
Looking at Lake’s own website, which includes some sharp criticism of Wikipedia, he only mentions one of these sources despite having clearly researched evidence of this. The challenge is that first-party research doesn’t really hold water in a world of verifiable sources, so he needs someone else to tell this story, which obviously matters because dongles are everywhere.
So, as Tedium is a frequently-cited reliable source on Wikipedia that has discussed the topic of dongles in depth multiple times, let me clear up the debate: There is no evidence that the term “dongle” was used in context to the computer prior to Wordcraft’s adoption of the term and I would argue that their claim to having invented the term in this context is realistic and credible. While others might have used hardware protection schemes, none of them used the term “dongle” to describe it, and there is limited etymology to suggest a direct connection between dongles and computers before Wordcraft.
As a professional journalist, I would recommend to those with significant historical claims of this nature to not directly edit Wikipedia themselves, but to talk to a journalist or academic researcher who is not connected to the original device in any way, who can help to uncover third-party research that verifies your contribution to history. They can help separate wheat from chaff and help build verifiable evidence that you were early, if not first—and help you avoid an edit war that seems designed to make you feel terrible about your life’s work.
Sometimes, a layer of objectivity is what is necessary to ensure what you say is verifiable.
The number of hours it took to crack the copy protection on the 1991 Amiga game Robocop 3, one of the first dongle-based games for the platform, and one that used layers of encryption in an effort to hide how it was attacked to end users. As YouTuber Modern Vintage Gamer notes, a cracking group of the era, Fairlight, was able to get around the checks because there was no encryption on the checks in the disk loader, meaning it was possible to work around the encrypted copy protection schemes. “This provided Fairlight with a way to crack the encryption and get a look at the dongle check code and crack the game,” the 2020 episode explained. The dongle proved so ineffective that the game’s maker, Ocean, never went down that road again.
To really have a chance to kill the dongle once and for all, we need stronger cable standards
Over the weekend, I tried plugging an Apple iPad Pro into an Apple cable so I could play a movie over a projector. (Movie night in the yard, highly recommend it.) But after many efforts, I couldn’t get it to work. The problem was the cable I was using, which is an Apple-supplied cable that I got with my MacBook Air.
Annoying, right? A big part of the reason for this annoyance is the lack of consistency that cable-makers are held to when building USB-C cables. So, when I switched to a nicer cable with higher throughput, suddenly, everything worked.
What gives? Simply put, the USB Implementers Forum, perhaps under pressure from or facing disinterest by manufacturers, has struggled to encourage device makers to make their cables hit a specific level of capability. Rather than working at a consistent rate across the board, these cables fall back to lower-quality standards, meaning that odds are high that even if you have a USB-C cable, it only supports USB 2.0 speeds.
The solution to this would be to require that USB-C cables meet a basic standard, along the lines of what, say, Thunderbolt supports. But instead, any random USB-C cable looks like it might work, but then only supports USB 2.0, a standard that is extremely out of date compared to what these cables are capable of.
USB-IF could have cut off USB 2.0 support in these cables, but it didn’t, and that means that whenever a corner needs to be cut, the first place these companies will look is the spec. And honestly, they could have avoided a good chance of this confusion by drawing a line in the sand when it came to the older standard.
I deeply dislike and distrust Lightning because it’s so heavily dominated by one company, but one thing Lightning port had going for it is the fact that you got a consistent experience every time. USB-IF could take a lesson from that.
The European Union’s recent rulemaking on USB-C has been controversial among some in part because it represents the state getting into voluntary standards. But I think that it can be useful for a body like the EU to step in in certain cases where the market is failing to do right by consumers. But I think simply requiring the port only solves half the issue. The other half is how that port is implemented.
Currently, the USB-IF is trying to simplify the branding to just describe the speed of the cable, rather than getting mired in features. But the problem is, they have no real control over what the manufacturers do. As The Verge recently reported:
It’s important to note that using these brandnames is far from mandatory. They apply to USB devices certified by the USB-IF, but these only cover a fraction of the total number of USB products out on the market. That’s because unlike specifications like Thunderbolt 4, which manufacturers have to license directly from Intel, USB is an open standard that anyone is free to use. That’s allowed it to become as ubiquitous as it is, but means the USB-IF is all-but-powerless to stop companies from building USB products that don’t use the specification properly. And no one’s going to stop them from branding a device as USB4 Version 2, or offer no branding at all.
In many ways, it seems that the best solution for consumers to avoid the confusion of unnecessary dongles is to be willing to invest in better cables, which means paying more to ensure you’re buying certified cables from established makers. But on the other hand, you don’t get to take advantage of the ubiquity of the USB-C standard if that happens.
The European Union has been very willing to step into this debate and mandate the move to USB-C. But the problem is, they haven’t taken steps to mandate higher-quality cables, which is a problem because the world is full of bad ones. That’s where the corners are really being cut, and because it’s so easy to cut those corners, that keeps the prices for the good cables artificially high, turning the fancy cables into de facto dongles.
(And that’s why, if you decide to use Thunderbolt for everything, you’ll have a much better experience, but will also pay a lot more for that improved experience.)
I’m not saying that Apple was right to put up a moat around itself by forcing many of its devices to use Lightning, but even as someone who won’t buy an iPhone until they get USB-C, I can have some empathy for their position if their goal is to protect their consumers from low-quality phone cables. (I’m not entirely sure it is, admittedly.)
Betting on consistent ports is only part of the wager. We also need to bet on consistent implementation.
So, this all brings me to the dongle du jour, the one that Apple just released for its first-gen Apple Pencil. This pencil never made much sense from its original release in 2015. To charge it, you had to plug it into your iPad via a male Lightning connector, even though it would have made more sense to put a female connector on the device. So, rather than plugging it into the wall, you had to plug it into your iPad, creating this awkward scene of a long, pointy object protruding out of a smooth slab. It didn’t need to be made this way, but it was.
(If you wanted to charge it without an iPad, it required the use of a female-to-female Lightning dongle, which has now been replaced by the USB-C to Lightning dongle. The logic behind this decision has never been properly explained.)
On top of this general awkwardness, this design also necessitated an easy-to-lose cap, an approach that has proven surprisingly inelegant over time.
Now, with the new entry-level iPad, it no longer comes with a Lightning port, but only supports this specific pencil, which represents everything wrong with the proprietary Lightning standard. It’s almost as if Apple decided to keep this tool around in this awkward, poorly implemented way, knowing the popularity of the entry-level iPad in classrooms, to poison a whole generation of kids against USB-C.
Often, many dongles have evolved into being kludges to solve failures of design and technology. The original dongles were built in the spirit of trying to prevent the limitations of the software of the era—that is, the ability to prevent copy protection—from making the production and sale of software unprofitable. Modern dongles often take the proprietary and translate it into something that can be more universally understood.
This particular dongle is infuriating because it reflects the bad decisions of 2015 being inflicted on the customers of 2022, something that is particularly frustrating given the fact that these bad decisions have already been solved elsewhere in the market.
Which makes sense, really. The dongle—not the 1981 version, but the version we see now—represents all that’s wrong with modern technology. It is the fine print in a world that prioritizes simple, easy-to-read text. It is the complicating element of the success story. And in the name of cutting corners and sanding edges, we let it persist.
If we want the dongle (or at least the mindset that leads to dongles) to go away, we either need better customers or better manufacturers. Who will blink?
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