ALL ABOUT USB
Discover the past, present and future of USB – the connector that changed everything
There are, on average, 13 Universal Serial Bus (or USB) ports within 30 feet of you right now – amazing. USB first appeared on PCs around 1996, and has done very well ever since. By the new century, it was everywhere. USB ports are on cameras, cell phones, MP3 players, printers, and in your car. Everywhere. It has, indeed, almost become universal. Is there really an average of 13 ports around you? No idea – we made that up, but it sounded believable, didn’t it?
Why has USB become so successful? The original technical specifications were reasonable for the period. Sockets and plugs are simple and therefore cheap. It includes power – enough to drive a small device or charge a larger one. You can plug things in and out at will, something we’ve got so used to now we that forget you used to have to reboot a lot to get things working. It has another vital ingredient of many successful standards: no royalty payments. If you want to use the official logos on your gear, you must get it past the compliance testing, and pay a small fee. That’s it – you don’t have to pay a kickback on every USB device you sell. And, lastly, there is the mess of connectivity options that it replaced.
In the early 1990s, most peripherals had their own connection. Your PC’s keyboard had a chunky IBM AT five-pin plug, the mouse wanted a nine-pin serial port, the printer its own 25-pin parallel port. The new-fangled modem required an RS-232 serial port. SCSI drives needed a SCSI port. IBM’s PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports were neater, but were essentially just smaller versions of the existing ports. The proliferation of standards made coding difficult, and added lots of ungainly sockets to PC motherboards. If you developed a new peripheral, where would you plug it in? The world was rapidly digitising, and the average computer had no suitable free ports to plug anything new into. Peripheral makers often resorted to shipping their devices with an accompanying expansion card to make sure they had the port that they needed.