The Universal Serial Bus (USB) appears to be the one peripheral Danny Bradbury finds that interest is growing, even in the face of the Firewire threat. interface standard that has snuck up on an unsuspecting Wintel (Windows/Intel) userbase. Few end users appear to fully appreciate what USB can do. Yet it offers widely acknowledged ease of use plus virtually uncompromised hardware expandability. Despite this, USB peripherals are still very thin on the ground.
So how useful is USB to the serious PC user and what real benefits can it provide? It has been variously estimated that there are between 80 and 100 million PCs already in circulation that are capable of supporting USB along, with some 2.5 million Apple Macintoshes. In fact, USB holds even greater significance for Macintosh users.
The range of top selling USB peripherals includes monitors, speakers, mice, scanners, printers, modems, digital cameras, and video cameras.
The market for USB peripherals is still very much in its infancy - Dataquest estimates that only 10 million units will ship during 1999 and the USB Forum admits that at the end of 1998 there were only around 100 different USB products.
Why is USB so underdeveloped as a market? Kevin Knox, a senior analyst with Gartner Group, comments: "We've had USB-enabled hardware for over two years now. The problem has been that, until Windows 98, we didn't see native USB support from Microsoft."
He blames this lack of software support for USB's slow start. "The bottom line is that a technology that isn't endorsed and supported natively by the operating system vendors won't go anywhere," Knox says. "USB is the most disappointing PC technology I've seen. It proves a technology must be locked into Microsoft's products or die."
Clive Hudson, general manager for Europe at USB hub manufacturer Entegra, maintains that other factors may also have held back USB. He says that, until recently, there have been hardware incompatibility problems.
Hudson claims that initially some Far Eastern USB hub vendors were selling products that didn't fully conform to the specifications and provide the necessary 500mA power to each USB port. Another vendor says that some early PCs had USB ports but they weren't actually connected.
Andrew Till, technology strategist at PC Card modem maker Psion Dacom, agrees that the whole situation altered radically with the release of Windows 98 - complete with its in-built support for USB. "End users are now seeing the level of ease of use (with USB) that PC Card/PCMCIA users have enjoyed for the last three to four years," he confirms.
Before USB at the desktop, adding extra hardware meant dealing with serial and parallel ports, plus ISA and PCI cards. To make matters worse, in many cases peripherals still boast jumper switches that need to be set by the end user/system manager. With USB there's no manual configuration required at all - plus users don't have to worry about the IRQ (system interrupt) problem where, without a USB, a PC only has a small number of IRQs and this seriously restricts the number of peripherals that can be added.
Herve Petit, marcomms manager with storage product manufacturer LaCie, believes very firmly in USB as a suitable interface for the corporate PC user. He describes installing USB peripherals as "a piece of cake. It's a very clean connection and USB is also very stable".
From an end user's perspective, Petit described having USB in a PC as the equivalent of fitting air-conditioning in a car - "it's a big comfort for the end user," he enthuses.
A major drawback for USB is its image in the corporate market. According to Knox, all the main USB devices sold to date tend to be downmarket products such as loudspeakers and joysticks while more corporate products, like high-end scanners, are still parallel port or SCSI devices.
Superficially, it would be easy to assume that the USB market is entirely driven by sales into the home-orientated iMac arena. Yet, Knox doesn't see this as an iMac-driven market: "Yes, many of the peripherals are iMac compatible, but that's mainly because all the early USB hardware (offered for PCs) has been consumer-oriented products, such as joysticks and fancy mice."
Knox sees standardising on USB as a very clever ploy. "Apple picked USB for two reasons," he explains. "One, it is easy to use but, secondly, Steve Jobs knew that (peripheral) manufacturers would target Intel hardware first and in this way he's provided a means for such suppliers to cover both platforms with a single item."
Admittedly, while most of today's USB products have a distinctly games/home user flavour, there are some very definite corporate USB products waiting to take centre stage. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is provided by In Focus, which markets a range of digital video projectors, costing in the region of £6,000, that take full advantage of USB's capabilities.
For example, the In Focus LP750 projector comes with the company's CableWizard 3 connector, a USB device that provides a single cable that can simultaneously handle stereo sound, monitor feed and mouse control - even allowing the presenter to hot plug it into a PS/2 when necessary.
Another good example here is MGE, which is working on USB control for its range of PC compatible uninterruptible power supply (UPS) products.
According to Mark Derbyshire, national sales manager for computer products at MGE, the company is developing a future generation of UPS's which will have embedded USB connectors.
Winning by default
MGE already offers a USB slot card for its existing line of Pulsar Ex products. However, as Derbyshire admits, a UPS customer will seldom need to use USB's plug and play capabilities more than once. The company's move toward USB adoption appears to be driven, therefore, by a conviction that most PCs in the foreseeable future will default to USB connections, rather than by any belief in USB's ability to offer the UPS link any significant advantage over a traditional RS232 serial connector.
Derbyshire points out that USB has a star topology which requires a hub in a similar manner as twisted pair Ethernet (10BaseT). While a PC can act as a hub itself, typically it only offers two ports so a USB hub will be necessary to reach the theoretical 127 device limit.
Although hubs will be built into monitors, as with the SyncMaster 700Up from Samsung, and into keyboards, it's not surprising that Entegra and other hub suppliers argue that a dedicated USB is the best solution.
LaCie's Petit points out that, as a USB member, the company has participated in several USB plugfests. These are informal technical gatherings at which engineers push the technology to its limits.
At these technology jamborees, Petit claims to have seen up to 117 different USB peripherals connected successfully to a single Windows machine, with 94 units linked to an iMac. "In both cases, we didn't push up to the 127 devices (limit) due to lack of hubs or peripherals to connect," he explains.
Petit argues that USB can also help systems managers by reducing the cost of ownership of PCs. Thanks to USB, managers can swiftly attach a storage device to a PC, transfer data across, and then detach the device again - all without having to power down or reboot either machine. He says this facility is extremely handy as a way of quickly backing up data and applications held on portable PCs.
Another major potential growth area for USB is in datacommunications where it offers benefits in terms of ease of installation. Products which fall into this category include regular modems, ISDN terminal adaptors, cable modems and ADSL adaptors. Despite this potential, there's hardly been a mad rush to introduce USB modems.
John Cunningham, managing director of UK modem manufacturer PMC (Pace), says the company has been on the ball as far as USB is concerned, witnessed by the fact that it launched a USB video camera nearly a year ago. "Yes, it is coming and lots of companies - ours included - are watching the situation closely," he says. "I'm looking at my plan for future product developments now and USB is definitely included."
A criticism Gartner's Knox levels against the market is that, while it is growing very quickly, end users are currently reluctant to pay a price premium for USB. He explains that the US customer has to pay an extra $50 (£30) for USB connectivity.
This is denied by German manufacturer Elsa, which has introduced both a USB modem and a USB ISDN adaptor onto the UK market. Fiona Faulkner, head of operations for Elsa in the UK, argues that at around £77 for its USB modem and approximately £99 for its ISDN adaptor, there's no real premium being charged for USB connectivity.
Probably the greatest threat to USB will stem from the controversy raging around how it will fare against the faster interface standard IEEE 1394, commonly known as Firewire.
Knox says: "Firewire is still way too expensive. It won't be a standard PC offering for three to four years." He sees it as only being deployed for video capture. Moreover, he believes that USB II will tackle some of these performance issues.
In contrast, Jamie Kelley, marketing manager for networking vendor, D-Link UK, says the situation will be resolved in much the same way as IDE and SCSI technology. "These manage to co-exist although they are effectively doing the same thing," he says. "USB and, soon, USB II will be taken up by the type of PC purchaser who buys a powerful integrated multimedia system - the early adopters of the PC and computer peripherals industry."
Kelley predicts that, just as in his view Windows 2000 will become the corporate standard and Windows 98 will be used in the home, so IEEE 1394 will become the corporate interface while USB II will be seen as the solution for the home market.
At LaCie, Petit says the company is not backing one technology over another and views Firewire simply as another market opportunity for his company's storage products. "We have a complete range of Firewire products," he states.
Claiming that Apple, NEC and Sony have kick-started the IEEE 1394 market by already bringing out notebook PCs equipped with Firewire, Petit maintains that it demonstrates that the portable computing sector is the one taking most interest in USB and Firewire. "Our research shows that portable users account for around 50% of USB purchases, although nowhere near 50% of PCs are equipped with USB," he suggests.
USB is not just a fad on the iMac, either. LaCie is claiming huge success for its iMac-only USB floppy disk drive - a product that wouldn't make sense in the Wintel market where floppy drives are fitted as standard devices.
The general consensus is that the Windows user will see a greater range of USB peripherals coming onto the market. LaCie, for example, is planning to introduce DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM drives, plus a PCMCIA card reader to enable desktop systems to use the wide range of PC Cards already available for the portable PC market.
SCM is also waiting in the wings with a USB Zip drive plus a reader for digital camera cards (such as CompactFlash). Both SCM and Key Tronic - which offers a range of USB-based keyboards - claim to be making their technology available to other OEMs. Even Compaq has introduced a USB modem.
Knox sees the USB market as growing tremendously. Along with most other pundits, he doesn't see USB as a complete replacement for serial and parallel ports but he does predict that USB will emerge as the default and recommended interface by the end of this year."That's not to say serial and parallel ports will disappear - they'll remain in the market just like ISA slots have," he concludes.
THE UNIVERSAL SERIAL BUS REVEALED
The Universal Serial Bus (USB) is the IT world's equivalent of an all-rounder in interface terms. As a standard, the USB port is intended to provide a single interface connection for absolutely any kind of PC peripheral. Indeed, Apple's iMac is only equipped with a USB port and nothing else - which explains the deep interest within the Macintosh fraternity for anything USB.
At the present time, a revised version of this technology, USB II, is being completed and it will extend the capabilities of the USB interface from 12Mbps to between 120-240Mbps. USB II systems and peripherals are expected to become available by autumn next year, with key players pushing for USB II including Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, NEC, and Philips.
The good news is that USB II ports will be backwardly compatible with standard USB peripherals, of course.
The main drive behind USB is to dispense with separate interface ports for different kinds of peripheral: serial ports for modems and mice and parallel ports for printers and scanners. The chief benefits to USB are hot swapping, true plug and play, high data throughput speeds, and the ability to connect multiple external hardware devices to one machine.
Part of USB's problem has been that, while the motherboard manufacturers have included the components for supporting USB on their boards, system assemblers haven't always provided the necessary USB connectors.
The real crux of USB is that it is the closest thing you can get to genuine plug and play. For example, you can connect a mouse to a PC via a USB connection without rebooting or powering down the computer. By complete contrast, you can't do that with a PS/2 mouse.
As two of the wires on a USB port supply power, peripherals don't necessarily need a separate power supply. Furthermore, once plugged in, USB peripherals immediately identify themselves to their associated software driver which only has to be loaded onto the PC once. Compare this to the nightmarish problem of attaching a printer and scanner to the PC's parallel port.
Another benefit of USB is its ability to offer data speeds of either 1.5Mbps or 12Mbps, making it fast enough for an Internet modem or for connecting a monitor. It can also support up to 127 of these devices and this is where USB hubs have found their niche. The hub provides additional (downstream) ports to the PC via its connecting (upstream) link. Not only have USB ports been built into most portable PCs and many desktops, but it is a standard requirement for the PC 98 specification set by Microsoft and Intel.
Here's the catch. Although USB support is built into Windows 98, Windows 95 users need to have the Rev B (OSR 2.1) version to enable connectivity.
With no commercially available International Rev B version of Windows 95 (vital for the UK) - the logical solution is to upgrade to Windows 98. Simply installing USB drivers on a Windows 95 Rev A machine can wreak havoc with the registry, so beware.
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