USB – or Universal Serial Bus technology has become a widespread, simple, cheap way of connecting all kinds of devices. Its popularity has come about extremely quickly as the history of USB only stretches back to the mid-1990s. This article gives an overview of USB technology, its history and its future.
USB technology was developed in order to present a standard means by which devices, particularly computer-related devices, could interconnect and communicate. It was created by a collaboration of Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, Digital, IBM, and Northern Telecom. In the early days of the IBM PC, there were a myriad of connections for different types of devices including, AT, serial, parallel, joystick, SCSI & PS/2. None of these ports were compatible with each other & each served essentially the same function. Enter USB. Not only did USB give one interface, it provided power for some devices and it enabled users to plug a large number of devices into one machine.
Pre-releases of the USB standard came in 1994 with the final USB 1.0 specification being released to market in November 1995. The standard was improved upon in September 1998 with USB 1.1 which many of the problems identified in the original standard were fixed.
USB could work at 1.5 or 12 mbps but with competition from Firewire & with technology placing greater demands on bandwidth, USB 2.0 released in August 2000, could handle speeds of 480mbps.
All connectors face an adoption problem and USB was no different. There is only a market for a device that is interconnectable if there are other devices in the market that it can connect to. These network effect can hamper the adoption of every device (if you are the only person with a telephone, it’s not much use but if you’re one of millions with the same, standardised system, the increased market for the standard makes it more affordable and more appealing to others).
USB was given a real boost by the iMac which offered USB ports only & no legacy option. This meant that there was a market where USB could gain a foothold.
USB devices perform many functions extremely well. Devices can be hot-swapped – that is they could be connected & disconnected without it being necessary to reboot a PC. Devices from many thousands of manufacturers can intercommunicate, many devices can be installed without a specific device driver, some devices can be connected to computers without the need for an external power supply and others can recharge by being connected via a USB device.
USB connectors are robust in that they do not rely on pins that are easy to bend or break. USB cables are designed so that static electricity is discharged before a connection is made making the standard more durable.
The connections are extremely usable & it is easy to connect USB devices or to realise that you have the wrong end of the cable. By design, the cables are easy to attach & remove – there is no need for screws – meaning that they are easily accessible by all.
The future for USB is the USB 3.0 standard that will work at 4.8 gbps, ten times the current rate. This new standard will only be backwards-compatible with USB 2.0 but will include some power conservation features. Increased speed & better power consumption will help USB compete with the other standards on the market including Firewire 800 & eSATA.
To put the performance of the new USB standard into perspective, currently, it would take 15 minutes to copy a 27gb high definition film; the new standard will mean that this can be accomplished in 70 seconds.
The USB standard is extremely usable and durable & it has massive popularity. Many mobile ‘phones have a USB connection & USB Flash drives make the transfer of large amounts of data an extremely simple process. A subculture of USB gadgets has sprung up in recent years with weird & wacky devices like USB fridges, vacuums, toasters, slippers & back massagers all hitting the market to massive amounts of interest and varying degrees of success. It is interesting that whilst it was the brainchild of a number of companies including Microsoft & Intel it was Apple that gave USB its popularity. Windows machines did not deal well with USB even as late as Windows 98 but the iMac showed how USB devices could be used to give a great deal of variety through extreme simplicity.