Edge of Innovation

Your PC used to have five cables, soon it won’t have any

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

When you look back to the first PCs, it’s easy to forget how many wires we had to mess around with. Those early, bulky systems (‘you can have any colour you want, as long as it’s beige…’) consisted of the PC itself (with mains plug), a wired keyboard, a wired VGA monitor (with mains plug) and, post-1983 at least, a wired mouse.

That’s five key cables. Six, if you wanted to attach a printer using a RS-232 interface lead. Seven, if you connected to a network with an RJ45 or attached an external modem. Eight, if you attached a pair of tinny little speakers with a 3.5mm audio cable. Nine if those speakers required their own power. In short, there were cords, wires and cables everywhere.

But let’s look at those core five for now.

There were some early attempts at cord-cutting. Machines like the 1982 Commodore 64, blended computer and keyboard together, eliminating one wire straight off. While computers such as the 1980 IBM 5120 and the iconic 1984 Macintosh incorporated the display into the computer chassis, eliminating two.

Commodore 64
The cord-cutting Commodore 64 merged keyboard and computer.

Some, like the aged Epson HX-20 (1981) had a built-in four-line LCD, a keyboard and a tiny printer. But while this ridiculous all in one reduced the overall cable count by four, it did its cord-cutting with little concern for usability, comfort or style.

Obviously the laptop/notebook form factor has done most for banishing wires and cables. Early portables like the IBM ThinkPad 700 (1992) came with a built-in screen, keyboard and mouse (in the form of a bright red TrackPoint). That’s four of our five core cables removed in one clamshell-shaped swoop.

Now laptops come with almost everything built-in — wireless networking to banish Ethernet and printer cables, webcams (no need for a separate USB camera), microphone, speakers and Bluetooth for connecting all manner of cordless peripherals. As I sit typing these words on a modern Dell XPS 13, the only wire in view is the power cable. And I can unplug that.

HP ENVY 34-a090na Curved All-in-One
The HP ENVY 34-a090na Curved All-in-One is almost all wireless, apart from the power lead.

Desktop systems can be almost equally wire-free. All in one, cord-cutting systems like the HP Sprout or the curvy HP ENVY 34-a090na merge monitor and PC into a single unit, pairing it with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Meanwhile, other new wireless technologies are killing off cables on traditional desktops — Intel WiDi (Wireless Display) targeting monitor cables; WiGig (Wireless Gigabit) aiming at Ethernet, USB, HDMI and DisplayPort connections.

All of which leaves us with one cord — the power cable. While laptops can cut this too, albeit temporarily, desktop PCs aren’t so fortunate.

The WattUp technology from Energous claims to charge devices anywhere within a 30 foot radius.
The WattUp technology from Energous claims to charge devices anywhere within a 30 foot radius.

But even the power lead might ultimately disappear on future machines. Tomorrow’s wireless charging technologies like Rezence will let you charge your computer using a power mat, while more ambitious systems, like WattUp, want to literally broadcast power over the air.

When wireless charging becomes a mass market reality, the cord-cutting will be complete. Portable devices will charge wirelessly and displays will connect wirelessly. While keyboards and mice are already wire-free, in some cases they might be replaced by voice control and gestures.

If any cables do remain, their messy loops and coils will sit behind the scenes. Out of sight, out of mind in a truly wireless world.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/Sinisha Karich

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