You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of technology as ubiquitous as the USB (universal serial bus) cables/connectors. Whether you’re a casual tech user or a career professional, this has provided a versatile, durable, and reliable option for data transfer to help connect computers to peripherals. In fact, there are over 10 billion USB products in the install base, with 3 billion USB products being shipped per year. Equally important is the role that USB plays in providing power to connected devices. A historical look at USB shows how the technology has grown to become so commonplace, as well as the pain points that power innovations like USB-C. So, from the origins of the technology to USB Type-C, here’s a walkthrough for you.
The origins of USB as we know it begins in 1994. 7 tech companies, (DEC, Intel, Nortel, NEC, Microsoft, IBM, and Compaq), worked together to try and create an industry standard to connect digital devices. Hard as it is to believe, there was a point where this wasn’t the case, creating compatibility nightmares for many setups. The companies’ main focus was a combination of durability, simplicity, and cost-effectiveness.
Fast-forward to 1996, and we saw the first release of USB, USB 1.0, in January. Note that this is a lot slower than USB as we know it. The low-bandwidth version had 1.5 Mbps in terms of connections, while the faster version went at 12 Mbps. It may seem difficult to comprehend now, but in those days, they were considered fast.
Naturally, though, as technology advanced, so did the demand for more speed in terms of data transfer. This was the primary driving factor behind the advance to USB 2.0 in 2000. This new version increased the speed by around 40 times to 480 Mbps. This made USB suitable for devices like printers or webcams that transferred that higher amount of data. 2000 would also bring another major innovation for USB, with the first flash drive, having a grand total of 8 MB of storage. However, compared to floppy disks and other methods of storage, it was a huge leap.
In 2008, USB changed things up yet again, advancing to USB 3.0 for even faster data transfer speeds. This model hit speeds of 5 Gbps, roughly 10 times faster than USB 2.0. Later, in 2012, we would also see a major leap in terms of power delivery specifications, meaning that USB cables could now power complex devices like portable hard drives and notebook PCs. Combined, these technologies created another explosion of USB products and adapters, to try and bring all these different devices together.
Another side-branch of the history that would happen around this time is the advent of micro- and mini-USB. Many smartphone makers and manufacturers were trying to make smaller and smaller devices to meet demand, to the point where conventional USB connections were too large. These new items allowed smartphones to use USB technology but will be supplanted by the new USB-C connector, which has all the power and durability of conventional USB, while being small enough to fit these devices.
USB-C And The New Age
On that topic, how exactly did USB Type-C become to be? A lot of this started with talks between HP, Intel, AMD, and Microsoft when while they were developing the USB 3.1 update. In time, dozens of other tech companies would take part, making USB-C a truly collaborative effort. The hallmark of this, on top of having the USB 3.1 technology, is the fact that USB-C is completely reversible, putting an end to the days of plugging the wrong end in or plugging it upside down.
Brad Saunders, the chairman of the USB 3.0 promoter group, notes that in terms of the USB-C physical connector design, it was driving by several connector suppliers who collaborated openly on the design. He adds that there was a lot of interest in how the connector works, in particular, in regards to signal integrity and radio frequency interference/mitigation.
The type-C connector first became a concept in July of 2013 and ended up becoming a finalized spec on 2014. While it may look similar to conventional USB cables at first, there are a lot of changes that drove it. One, as we mentioned before, was the growing smaller sizes of various devices. Not only does USB-C help with compatibility, but is also future proofed for new smartphones and tablets as well.
The goal for the early stages was to try and focus on marketing USB Type-C connectors for mobile devices and laptops, where the size was the biggest concern, however, the experts knew that in time, desktop PCs would make the transmission as well. Part of this is due to ease of use, with all peripherals and devices running off the same cable. But power also plays a major role as well. For example, your average USB-A connector is limited to 10 Gbps across a single channel of data. USB-C has more wires and higher frequency, meaning that it’s a lot easier to add more functionality and speed. As a result, USB-C is already positioned to support the next wave of USB upgrades, something anyone can benefit from.
The technology doesn’t stop there, either. One major concern with the adoption of USB C is how to manage all the cables and dongles needed to take advantage of the new tech with legacy hardware. A USB C docking station is the perfect answer. By resting a laptop into a USB dock, you can emulate a desktop setting while managing to run several different peripherals and adapters through one USB-C cable.
Overall, USB’s history is a testament not just to the technology, but all the different minds that came together to create it. It’s something worth musing about the next time you find yourself connecting a flash drive or absent-mindedly charging your phone.
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