Why the World May Never Truly Be Rid of Dongles

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

As you may guess from the stuff I write about, I have a lot of computers, of various shapes, sizes, and functions.

Some of them I only mess with occasionally; some are frequent companions; some (like my Pinebook Pro) are destined to be frequent targets of tinkering for me. But the one thing that they have in common is that they encourage me to plug in a rat’s nest of cabling to plug into the various gadgets I own. The monitor I got late last year I purchased specifically because I needed a USB hub to go with my high-resolution screen. 

But despite all these efforts to simplify my cabling life, dongles rule everything around me. And around you, too. It comes with the territory. 

Ultimately, the problem the dongle solves may never truly go away.

“We don’t know much, for sure, about the word that has been a source of so much frustration and controversy and, regardless, ubiquity. But that hasn’t stopped people from guessing.”

— Megan Garber, in a 2013 essay in The Atlantic discussing the origin of the word “dongle,” which she noted was fairly unclear. A 1984 article from The Guardian, in reference to Clive Sinclair’s ill-fated Sinclair QL computer makes a reference to dongles as “an ancient piece of computer jargon,” despite the fact that it’s one of the earliest references I can find in a mainstream newspaper. It suddenly showed up in newspapers around 1984, as did one of the earliest patent filings regarding dongles, in the United Kingdom. In technology publications, the first references I see date to October 1981, in issues of New Scientist and Byte, both in reference to antipiracy technology. 

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An example of a parallel-port dongle. Image: Raimond Spekking/Wikimedia Commons

The dongle’s original legacy as an antipiracy tool

Last year, when the latest iteration of the Mac Pro came out, one thing that may have confused observers looking at this machine, which they will likely never use, is the unusual placement of a USB-A port on the machine’s motherboard.

To those that only lightly follow technology, the existence of this port likely made no sense. But it reflects a decades-long legacy of tying security to actual hardware that, for some programs at least, persists to this day.

A 1984 New Scientist piece explained the dynamic that led to the growing popularity of dongles throughout the period, but noted that despite their goal of security, they ultimately were seen as easy to break by technical users:

The dongle is a small plastic box which plugs into one of the ports at the back of a computer. A program protected by a dongle contains a routine that asks a computer to check whether the dongle is present and sometimes to read a code from it. If it has not been plugged in the program will not run. Most dongles do not prevent programs from being copied, but they stop the copies from being used, since each copy needs a matching dongle to work.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to prevent the owner of a dongle-protected program from displaying the program code on his computer screen and removing the dongle check from it. One expert says this task takes about two hours.

The dongle system has been refined by some companies. Instead of supplying a program in plain computer code, some or all of the instructions are scrambled. The key to this simple encryption is held by the dongle which passes it to the computer’s operating system (the program which coordinates the computer’s operations). Once unscrambled, the program is loaded into the computer’s memory and runs in the normal way; but it is not difficult to remove the built-in checks. 

For games, these approaches were eventually replaced by copy-protection schemes inside manuals or by different distribution approaches, like shareware. But dongles for more high-end or specialized software products, along with employee security, never really went away. In fact, they got more sophisticated, adding their own processing capabilities that interacted with the software being used.

Of course, people aren’t aware where they actually came from in the first place, as The Atlantic_’s Garber implied. This has led to fun stories, the most colorful of which was invented by the tech company Rainbow Technologies, which, in a 1992 advertisement than ran in _Byte, invented a character named Don Gall who they claimed the device was named after.

“He wasn’t famous. He didn’t drive a fancy car, but dressed in his favorite Comdex T-shirt and faded blue jeans, he set out to change the course of the software story,” the fable started.

While obviously totally made up, it nonetheless became something of an urban legend.

These devices generally hooked up to serial or parallel ports throughout the 1990s, with adapters that allowed users to continue to plug in devices such printers. In terms of video games, cheat tools like the Game Genie could be thought of as dongles.

But in the late 1990s, these devices were able to shrink thanks to USB. These dongles, while less prominent than they once were, have largely stayed in common use in a handful of industries, specifically those that sell computer-aided design or manufacturing software, and those that offer software for digital audio workstations. ACID and Autodesk, two manufacturers that specialize in are probably two of the best-known companies that rely on hardware security dongles in the modern day. These are the kinds of devices for which the Mac Pro has an internal USB-A port.

More common, however, are devices intended specifically for two-factor authentication, such as the YubiKey, which serve a similar security function, but for the user or the organization for which they serve, rather than to prevent piracy. These tools work in similar ways to the dongles of yore, perhaps with additional security mechanisms.

Speaking of USB, the switch of formats, which was ultimately a good thing for technology, helped create a pretty big market for dongles big and small, many of which connect to all variety of objects, from printers to TV sets. (Apple, the company that moved to USB early, is responsible for many of our dongles.)

The USB thumb drive is a great example of a dongle, and perhaps the most prominent example of flash disks around.

Similarly, video standards have a way of adding dongles to our lives. Ever converted HDMI to DVI to VGA to composite to RF? (No, just me?) Then you’ve lived the dongle life.

It’s a fact of life, and one that has only become more of a fact of life thanks to the rise of USB-C creating natural incompatibilities for dongles.

Five of the weirdest dongle connectors I’m aware of

  1. USB-C to MagSafe. As is well-documented, I have issues with the design of the Mac’s default power brick, which I think has serious deficiencies because, prior to its conversion to USB-C, its primary cable is both thin and non-removable. For years, Apple made this port proprietary and failed to allow for alternative devices to be made, but after moving to USB-C, Apple took its eye off the MagSafe ball. I bought this adapter off of eBay, delivered straight from China, and use it with the adapter that comes with my HP Spectre x360, which supports USB-C by default.
  2. Jawbone UP24 to USB. Despite the fact that most people associate exercise bands with the brand Fitbit, it was Jawbone that really set the stage for the category’s success with its UP series of fitness trackers, which actually pulled off the neat trick of looking cool without being showy (a credit to its designer, Yves Béhar). It helped to build a market segment … which Jawbone’s competitors quickly took for themselves. For this discussion, though, The interesting thing about this device is how it charged: You take off the cap and a 2.5mm headphone adapter appears. You plug that into a USB-A dongle with said jack, that isn’t useful for anything else.
  3. DVI to ADC. While VGA is a far more memorable adapter for those looking to get a signal onto a video display, DVI has been a more consistent part of the video experience in recent years, appearing on video cards even today, while DisplayPort and HDMI are locked in a battle for supremacy. But ADC? This was a relatively brief attempt by Apple to try to minimize the number of cables needed to connect cables to its monitors. It was arguably ahead of its time—it took USB-C 15 years to make this capability common across the computer industry—but the problem was that the port was proprietary, and if you wanted to use a computer other than Apple’s G4 towers (say, a PowerBook), you needed to break apart those signals—which required a really big dongle. Apple’s official dongle, released in 2002, is both extremely expensive and as large as a standard laptop power brick, and while there is a smaller third-party alternative, it’s harder to find. At least one hardware-hacker has gone to the trouble of creating a reasonably sized version.
  4. Crazyradio PA USB Dongle. This dongle, an open-source device, is essentially a USB radio that works on the same open 2.4-gigahertz as early versions of Wi-Fi. Why would you want this? Well, it’s effectively a wireless mouse dongle for everything else, except with a much larger antenna. Highly hackable, open-sourced, originally developed for a tiny drone, and with a massive range, it can be used for any manner of weird stuff, and is a popular choice for hardware hackers, though some have gone to the point of hacking those wireless mouse adapters for whatever they want.
  5. The Shugru-covered wireless mouse connector. For those with wireless mice, Apple’s move to USB-C on laptops has made life a lot more frustrating because it requires the use of a dongle with your dongle. Rather than be stuck with that state of affairs, the YouTube channel DIY Perks pulled apart one of those mouse connectors, soldered it onto a USB-C breakout board, and covered the whole thing with Shugru, the moldable glue popularly used for DIY projects. A little hacky, but it totally worked.

There was once a massive dongle for sale that could Hackintosh your system

The very nature of dongles means that they come and go, and no dongle, perhaps, has come and gone as quietly as the EFiX USB dongle.

Unlike the security keys used to protect software from installation, EFiX literally does the opposite—it allows users to install software that its maker would prefer users didn’t.

A gadget modern enough that it was featured on websites such as Engadget, the EFiX (also known as EFI-X™, with both names referencing the UEFI firmware that is common today but Intel Macs were relatively early to) harkens back to a time when installing MacOS on a non-Apple PC wasn’t particularly easy. This object, produced by a firm named Art Studios Entertainment Media, was what the company called a “Boot Processing Unit,” which essentially took all the complicated parts of building a hackintosh (all the messy code and what have you) and hid those from the user.

“EFI-X™ is not for everyone. It is not for who wants to save money, at all. It is for enthusiasts that put expandability and extreme performances before anything else in their computing needs. We heard those voices, and we answered,” the company that built this device stated on its website

The device, which plugs directly into a USB header on a motherboard rather than a single USB port, essentially handles all the messy parts of installing Mac OS X on a standard desktop PC. (The key word there is desktop; laptops tend not to have user-accessible USB headers.)

A 2008 Gizmodo review of the device noted that while you did have to open up your machine to plug it in, it was incredibly simple to use:

If you’ve got the hardware, the whole process is simple, so that even if you’ve never cracked your desktop before, you could still get this done with a quick search online for the requisite know-how. I plugged the EFiX dongle into a USB header on my motherboard-not, as you might have assumed, to a USB port on the outside. That’s really it for getting your hands dirty, though. I restarted my computer, selected EFiX as the boot device-it was listed under hard drives, actually-and was greeted with a drive selector. After selecting the Leopard disc, it started installing without a hitch.

But those who did get more technical were fairly skeptical about what they found. One Hackintosh blog doing an autopsy of the device in an effort to come up with a software-only solution said that despite the flashy looks and the use of an ARM processor on the module, it was not particularly novel.

“The whole thing, inclusive PCB, case, cable and packaging should cost less than 10 dollars, I guess,” the author wrote.

If this all sounds fairly gray area, it’s worth noting that this device came to life around the time that the Florida company Psystar was getting some negative legal attention from Apple after announcing plans to sell a Mac clone system—a battle Psystar ultimately, famously, lost.

The USA seller of the EFiX dongle, EFiX USA, at one point announced plans to release a clone system of its own … but then quickly changed course, realizing it would probably put them in a world of legal hell.

EFiX and its manufacturers faded away eventually, and the Hackintosh community came up with other solutions for easily turning a computer into a Hackintosh—no proprietary dongle necessary.

The thing with ports is that there is never a shortage of choice in terms of what you can do with them. But when you try shopping for cables with a specific use case in mind, things get confusing, fast.

Last fall, I made a trip to Micro Center, in part because I heard it was the best computer store chain in the country and I was utterly curious about this Mecca to silicon and circuitry. Overall, the experience was fairly positive, but I felt strangely claustrophobic in one section of the store—the section around KVM switches, which are devices (glorified dongles, really) that allow users to swap between different computers.

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So many cables. So much switch. Image: Priwo/Wikimedia Commons

These products, generally, require a lot of cables. An absolute ton, a level that will make you never want to see another cable again. And there are a lot of them, of different shapes, sizes, and use cases. Despite the fact that VGA is a dinosaur of a technology, the vast majority of KVM switches that handle video seem to rely on VGA in the year of Our Lord 2020.

The perfect KVM switch is often hard to find if you have a specific need—and they can get ungodly expensive if you’re not careful.

I can’t remember what I was looking for, but I remember vividly that I not only didn’t find it, but I suddenly had a strong desire to leave this store I went out of my way to visit. Again, I’m the guy that loves computers enough that I wrote an entire article about dongles, and I couldn’t take it. I psyched myself out.

The good news is that USB-C has the potential to simplify the use of KVM switches entirely, at least eventually, as they will only require one cable from each device that you’re switching from. The bad news is that USB-C has confused the spec significantly, in some frustrating ways.

By way of example: Recently, I set up a wall stand next to my desk (a floating shelf for DVD players, essentially) that I set up to allow me an easy place to put my laptops and use them without taking space on my desk. Conceivably, I could plug in my USB-C-based laptops using a single cable and get going. The problem is that USB-C adapters have short cables that are embedded into the device.

So, what do you do to resolve this? First, you find a USB-C hub that doesn’t have a cable built-in. Great; here’s the only one I could find that cost less than $50 that had good power-delivery capabilities. But now this cable has to pull double-duty. It needs to be long enough that it isn’t directly next to your computer, able to transmit high-speed data, but able to charge a laptop. This is harder than it sounds. My HP Spectre x360 relies on a 90-watt charger; most cables with the ability to transmit power and high-speed data top out at 60 watts. Want one that supports 100 watts, powerful enough to handle the latest MacBook Pro? In most cases, the speeds will max out at USB 2.0 levels, meaning you may be better off with Thunderbolt 3, which costs even more than USB-C does. I want USB-C for compatibility for multiple devices.

So it took quite a bit of digging to find the right hub and the right cable to make this setup possible. But now I can plug in a single cable to my laptop and start working. (OK, technically two, because the hub transmits HDMI at a slower speed than the port on the laptop itself. Can’t win everything.)

So why am I telling you about the complications of all this? Simply, I think it’s important to point out that we’re replacing dongles with ports that can theoretically take basically everything, but that have specifications so inconsistent and hard to follow that, once USB-C becomes the one port to rule them all, we may be replacing the physical hell of dongles with a sort of technical hell of inconsistent standards, where the value of a specific cable is defined by what it can do rather than what it looks like.

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You can buy a working system for a lower price than you can this cable.

We’re already seeing this. Recently, Apple drew a lot of attention for selling a Thunderbolt 3 cable for $129. It was very much a weird-flex-but-OK situation, but part of the reason that it sells for so much is that it’s relatively long (2 meters, or 6.6 feet, or $1.63 per inch), but supports the full Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 specs. Most cables of that type only support certain elements of these specifications; Apple’s expensive cable supports the whole thing, making it an extremely valuable cable for someone who prides maximum compatibility, maximum speed, and maximum flexibility in a single span of braided black cable. This kind of consumer, apparently, exists.

All of this raises the question: Are dongles as bad as they look? Probably not. But they sure look weird.