USB is (finally) a contender
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1999. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, June 1999
Way back at the beginning of 1997, in this column I
predicted that Universal
Serial Bus was going to be big. How could it miss?
It had the support of Intel and Microsoft, who were
trying to wean computer
manufacturers and users away from the antiquated ISA bus along with
and serial ports, in order to make Plug and Play more reliable.
It neatly solved problems for users, frustrated by IRQ
a lack of IRQs altogether. Or the need for additional parallel or
ports to plug in the growing number of gizmos and gadgets needed (or at
least desired) for a well-connected computer.
USB's 12 Mhz bandwidth, while not as potent as SCSI or
sufficient for a large number of less-demanding devices, from mice and
keyboards to digital cameras, scanners, audio, and networking. And
SCSI is limited to a chain of seven devices, the USB specifications
the connection of up to 127 devices. And unlike SCSI, the specs call
these to be hot-swappable-- they can be added or removed from the USB
while the computer is up and running. And USB devices wouldn't require
the termination or fussing with ID numbers that had helped to limit
popularity with PC users.
All that, and USB was inexpensive to implement. Adding
USB ports adds
less than $2 to the cost of a PC. As a result, virtually all PCs from
1996 on had a pair of USB ports on the back-- that's 200 million or so
USB-equipped PCs by the end of 1998. And as an external device, there's
no need to open up the PC's case to install a USB device-- or a couple
of dozen of them.
So how come the vast majority of those USB ports never
plugged into them?
To begin with, USB got caught in a sort of chicken and
egg vicious circle?
you know-- which comes first: the hardware support or the operating
support? When new PCs with USB ports started to become widespread,
was no operating system support. Eventually, Microsoft added a USB
to Windows 95B, but word spread that those drivers would not be
with the drivers being added to the then up-and-coming Windows 98.
manufacturers, in many cases, held off releasing products, awaiting
In the meantime, with few USB devices available, many
PC users continued,
as they'd been seemingly been doing forever, making do with patchwork
resolving IRQ conflicts, or plugging Zip drives, scanners, and more
parallel ports that had never really been designed to handle those
Bill Gates' failed public demo trying to hot-plug a
USB scanner using
a pre-release version of Win 98 didn't help matters much either.
Even with the release of Windows 98 a year ago, with
much improved USB
support (and a repeat of the scanner demonstration-- this time
didn't help matters much. A few USB devices were releases, but none was
the hardware version of software's 'killer app'.
Ironically, it took Apple to shake things up for PC
and users. The company's iMac computer hit the market in August 1998,
immediately became a hit, selling over a million units in a short
And the iMac lacked all of Apple's traditional ports.
No ADB bus for
keyboard and mouse. No SCSI for drives, scanners, and more. No serial
for printers or modem. Just USB-- new to an Apple product. And while
million PCs with USB hadn't created a vibrant market for USB devices, a
million+ iMac owners with nowhere else to turn gave that market the
it had been waiting for. And with an appropriate PC driver, a USB
in two-toned iMac colours will work just fine on a PC.
By the end of 1998, there were over 300 USB devices on
the market, and
market research firm Dataquest estimated that 10 million USB gizmos and
gadgets had been sold. They estimate sales for 1999 could reach 50
With an iMac and a recent PC, USB allows me to easily
like scanners and removable drives between both computers. And while
reports suggested that some USB devices were not as easy to get up and
running as promised, my experiments have been positive.
For example, I used a USB-Parallel converter from
represented in Canada by Keating Technologies: www.keating.com) to
add a second printer to my setup. This $80 gadget is simply a USB cable
with a powered adapter about the size of a pack of cards that plugs
the printer. Like many low-powered USB devices, it is able to draw all
the power it needs from the USB port-- no power cord needed. Install a
driver (separate ones for Windows 95 and 98), and suddenly, the system
gains an LPTUSB port.
Entrega has been one of the leaders in promoting the
use of USB-- the
company counts hubs (required to plug in multiple devices), parallel
serial converters, and an innovative networking adapter among their USB
A Comdex '98 demo successfully showed off a system
running with 111
USB devices plugged in-- not far from the theoretical maximum of 127.
while current Windows NT users are still without USB support, that will
be built into Windows 2000 (aka NT 5.0).
Like most PC owners, I have quite a collection of
internal and external
devices-- modems, tape drives, Zip drive, scanner, printers, and more.
But as the time comes to replace them, I'm planning to look first at
making use of my computers' USB ports. And if the sales projections
true, I'll have a lot of company.
Maybe my 1997 prediction that USB was going to be big
will turn out
to be true after all. Like many other prophets, I carefully neglected
But it looks as if, after a slight delay, USB is
finally about to have
a major impact on the way your customers use their PCs and the products
that they buy.