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 parallel and serial ports, in order to make Plug and Play more reliable.

It neatly solved problems for users, frustrated by IRQ conflicts or a lack of IRQs altogether. Or the need for additional parallel or serial 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 Firewire, seemed sufficient for a large number of less-demanding devices, from mice and keyboards to digital cameras, scanners, audio, and networking. And while SCSI is limited to a chain of seven devices, the USB specifications allow the connection of up to 127 devices. And unlike SCSI, the specs call for these to be hot-swappable-- they can be added or removed from the USB chain 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 SCSI's 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 late 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 had anything 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 system support? When new PCs with USB ports started to become widespread, there was no operating system support. Eventually, Microsoft added a USB patch to Windows 95B, but word spread that those drivers would not be compatible with the drivers being added to the then up-and-coming Windows 98. Hardware manufacturers, in many cases, held off releasing products, awaiting Windows 98.

In the meantime, with few USB devices available, many PC users continued, as they'd been seemingly been doing forever, making do with patchwork solutions-- resolving IRQ conflicts, or plugging Zip drives, scanners, and more into parallel ports that had never really been designed to handle those sorts of devices.

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 successful) 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 hardware manufacturers and users. The company's iMac computer hit the market in August 1998, and immediately became a hit, selling over a million units in a short amount of time.

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 ports for printers or modem. Just USB-- new to an Apple product. And while 200 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 kickstart it had been waiting for. And with an appropriate PC driver, a USB device 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 million units.

With an iMac and a recent PC, USB allows me to easily share devices like scanners and removable drives between both computers. And while early 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 Entrega (, represented in Canada by Keating Technologies: to easily 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 into 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 and serial converters, and an innovative networking adapter among their USB product line.

A Comdex '98 demo successfully showed off a system running with 111 USB devices plugged in-- not far from the theoretical maximum of 127. And 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 models making use of my computers' USB ports. And if the sales projections hold 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 to say when.

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.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan