Evolving dongles

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As of the 1980s, a dongle was "A software protection device which must be plugged into a computer to enable the protected software to be used on it". As of five or ten years ago, dongle had evolved to mean something like "a self-contained device that plugs into a  port on a computer that is normally used for connections to a separate external device". (See "Dongle", 6/3/2009, for additional citations and comic strips.)

But now, dongle is being used to refer to the expanding universe of adapters required to use Apple's hardware products:

And here's another nice video about "the dongle life".

It seems to me, though, that Apple deserves some credit for uncharacteristically using the  standard USB C rather than introducing another new proprietary interface coupling.


  1. Kaleberg said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    We went through this back when Apple introduced USB in the late 90s. We went through this back when Apple killed Firewire in the mid 00s. Now, we are going through this again. We're in that awkward transition stage that a lot of people have trouble with. Look at the state of chip credit card adoption in the US where no two stores allow one to check out the same way.

    [(myl) When have digital devices ever not been in an "awkward transition stage", with Apple products the most awkward of all?

    As for the development of the USB standard, Wikipedia seys:

    A group of seven companies began the development of USB in 1994: Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Nortel.[10] The goal was to make it fundamentally easier to connect external devices to PCs by replacing the multitude of connectors at the back of PCs, addressing the usability issues of existing interfaces, and simplifying software configuration of all devices connected to USB, as well as permitting greater data rates for external devices. A team including Ajay Bhatt worked on the standard at Intel;[11][12] the first integrated circuits supporting USB were produced by Intel in 1995.[13]

  2. Evolving dongles • Zhi Chinese said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 2:51 pm

    […] Source: Language Evolving dongles […]

  3. Andrew said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

    We've had this kind of "dongle" since at least the 1990s, when Type-I PCMCIA Ethernet cards would have a tiny little flat connector that had to be adapted to RJ-45 using a dongle.

    [(myl) There have been adapters ever since there have been things to connect, including pipes and hydraulic lines and whatnot. What's new is using the word dongle to mean "adapter" — and the swell of annoyance at Apple's latest donglification.]

  4. Dawn Gall said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    In support of Andrew, the venerable Jargon File defines dongle as

    [] 3. An adaptor cable mating a special edge-type connector on a PCMCIA or on-board Ethernet card to a standard 8p8c Ethernet jack. This usage seems to have surfaced in 1999 and is now [2003] dominant. Laptop owners curse these things because they're notoriously easy to lose and the vendors commonly charge extortionate prices for replacements.

  5. Brett said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 5:09 pm

    It seems to me that the reason that the word "dongle" made the transition has to do with the form that many dongles took. People did not want to have to waste a port by plugging dongle into it, so many dongles were made as connectors. You inserted them between the CPU and a peripheral , such as the keyboard.

  6. Ari Corcoran said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 7:55 pm


    The definition in the OED is for a security dongle:

    A software protection device which must be plugged into a computer to enable the protected software to be used on it.

    1981 New Scientist 1 Oct. 24/3 Many programs written for the Pet computer make use of a device known as a dongle. The dongle is an extra piece of memory that is plugged into the computer, without which the program refuses to run.
    They say the etymology is "Arbitrary".

  7. Andrew said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 10:20 pm

    Mark, maybe I didn't make it clear enough, but those adapters were commonly called dongles. In other words, "dongle" was used to mean "adapter", and even a very *similar* sort of adapter (one used to hook a big connector up to a device that's just too small to receive it otherwise), more than 15 years ago.

    [(myl) Got it. Good point!]

  8. ngage92 said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

    And who can forget Donglegate: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/03/pycon-2013-sexism-dongle-richards

  9. Johan P said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    It's worth mentioning that the 1980s-style licence dongle is still around as well, in some fields. I work as a subtitler and our software only works with a (USB-stick-based) hardware dongle.

  10. Gwen Katz said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 4:24 am

    I think hardware terms evolve quickly because there's such a big disconnect of understanding between the tech community and ordinary users (raise your hand of you ever knew someone who called their monitor their "computer" or their computer tower their "CPU"). So even if "dongle" was originally coined to mean specifically the copy protection device, it's pretty likely to eventually mean "any small thingamabob you plug into your device" in practical usage, especially since the word has the sound of something that just means "thingy."

  11. Góðan daginn said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    What proprietary interface couplings has Apple introduced in the past? There was FireWire, a standard that Apple pushed, but it wasn't proprietary. Although Apple was a leader in using USB, it was not an Apple standard, as you note above. And don't forget that some of the ports in today's Macs that use USB-C are really Thunderbolt ports — another non-proprietary but still not-terribly-popular Apple-backed standard.

    [(myl) Two generations of MagSafe power connectors, and two generations of iPhone connectors, for a start.]

  12. MikeA said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

    LocalTalk, ADB, "30-pin", Lightning, A plethora of video connectors?

    But, yeah, Apple is neither alone nor even unusual in attempting lock-in.

    BTW: of course my memory could be faulty, but I do recall the term in a more "interface thingy" way before I met the "lockout for software that can't use a network-based license manager" sense.

  13. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 1:23 am

    Everyone knows that the devices being referred to as dongles in the current discourse are properly called adapters, and everyone would refer to them that way in a neutral context. It’s just that the context is not neutral.

    “Dongle” used to refer primarily to those copy-protection peripherals, but I would argue it was always understood more broadly: an otherwise useless appendix for your computer that was irritating to keep track of, whose use was mandated by user-hostile company choices. Sound familiar?

    So calling adapters dongles was at least initially a polemic device to implicitly call out the gratuitousness of the hassle mandated at the technology provider’s whim. And the way the word sounds makes it well suited as a pejorative anyway…

    What’s different between different kinds of “dongles” is the quality of the hostility. The degree of hostility has also arguably been trending downward – as is often the case with a polemic device. Of course if the word stays in use anywhere near the current level, it’s liable to lose most of its negativity, maybe all of it.

  14. Andrew said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 11:23 pm

    Góðan: serial over 8-pin mini-DIN, AppleTalk, ADB, GeoPort, Apple Display Connector, 30-pin iPod/iPhone connector, Lightning, MagSafe. Several of those are no longer used, but that's the point. Apple introduces a new connector, gets users to spend money on compatible gear, and then abandons it a few years later in favor of a (usually superior) open standard, sending lots of hardware prematurely to the scrapheap.

    Also, to some extent, the first two generations of Thunderbolt. While they weren't Apple-proprietary, Apple had a hand in developing them, no one else really used them, and Thunderbolt 3 is entirely incompatible. Mini DisplayPort itself is also an Apple-patented variant on DisplayPort that was only standardized after the fact. Apple will license it to you freely… as long as you never sue Apple for violating any of *your* patents.

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