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The democratization of the PC—the ubiquitous USB port

Posted: 10.28.09

I remember back to 1996 when the first USB standard was proposed. I had done a little consulting with Intel prior to that and tried to convince them to use Philips’ I2C which had been developed in the early 80s as a CE inter-box communications system It had a 400 kb capability, and in 1998 got updated to 3.4 Mbit. In 1986 Apple and National Semiconductor introduced Firewire and it a 400 Mbit half duplex capability. Firewire ultimately became IEEE 1394 in 1995. Intel was actually interested in I2C but Philips at the time thought they had the golden goose and thought they had the golden goose and they were asking too much for licensing. —Intel had other ideas about expanding the connectivity of the PC and making the whole market grow. Apple was never interested in being associated with the (ugh) PC, so a deal with Firewire wasn’t going to happen. And since they didn’t know it couldn’t be done, Intel developed the USB.

They showed it to anyone who would listen and with not too much effort formed a consortium composed of Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, and Northern Telecom, with Philips conspicuously absent. And although Ajay Bhatt, the CO-inventor of USB may be the rock star and gets a lot of the lime light (http://www.tonightshowwithconanobrien.com/video/clips/intel-rockstar-100909/1165473/) my recollection is it was big Jim Pappas who was the driving force behind getting the spec adopted. (I still remember how excited he was in the late 1990s when he proudly showed me 100 devices all hooked up together.)

Bringing out an I/O standard—or a proposed standard—is like jumping off the high board, you hope you got everything right and that there will be enough water below you. Everyone knew RS232 was maxed out, didn’t have any duplex signaling capability (although some tricky stuff was made to work), and other alternatives like game ports weren’t going to scale, something was clearly needed, and if the politics could be managed, maybe, just maybe a new interface might get into the PC.

It did and when it did the face of PC land changed more than any other development. It didn’t happen overnight, these kind of things never do, but once it got rolling it was an unstoppable force. The list of peripherals that can be attached to a PC via USB would fill this entire issue, and more are coming. TV tuners to displays, disk drives to cameras, keyboards, mice, stereo glasses, audio amps and speakers, and the list goes on and on.

But it was a pink slip for geeks. No longer did my dear aunt have to call me if she wanted to plug in a new printer. The users were liberated, the things available exploded and man- and woman-kind began to feel like they actually owned their machines—and that was the moment—the liberation of the user, the democratization when any user could at any time plug in anything and expect it to work. USB became like the power plug in the wall—if the connector fit, the thing attached to the cord worked—period. And the culmination of this can be expressed in the form of the power plug to USB adaptor—how much more universal can you get than that?

But USB does have a few limitations. The current version is limited to 5 m cable length (~16 ft.), and can only carry 500mz max at 5vdc. A special version called Powered USB can carry 6A at 5V, 12V, or 24V, and so that suggests a monitor with just one cable—a USB cable. The next generation, USB 3.0, will take us up to 4.8 Gb, and 900ma standard. Announced in 2007,we expect that to start rolling next year—or maybe not since Intel doesn’t seem to be supporting it strongly, maybe we’ll just skip it and move on to USB4 LightPeak.

Next?

Remember that famous line in The Graduate—“Plastics, son, get into plastics.” Plastics are next, in the form of optical cables. At IDC, Intel publicly showed LightPeak, the new super high bandwidth interface Intel has been working on that uses optics instead of copper wires. Optics offer so many advantages—no EMF signature so they are secure, no IR loss so they are kool, and almost no length limitation. The initial data rates are 10 Gigabits and it has a potential scalability to 100 Gigabits and beyond.

And there’s Intel again up on the high board. Could LightPeak be USB 4, or maybe 5? The first thing needed is a connector. Candidates in discussion are a BNC-like thingie, or maybe a micro USB. Should it carry some copper for power? Still a few questions to workout. And, because of the bandwidth, this could be the universal connector—no more VGA, no more PS2, HDMI, ESATA, just one connector, how cool would that be?

And, think of what will happen to the PC when it becomes available. If USB 1.0 was liberating, LightPeak can take us to the next two generations.