This bus is picking up speed

After a slow start, Universal Serial Bus, a PC port design that automatically communicates with multiple attached devices, promises to make life simpler for users and vendors alike within the next year.

Industry observers said USB use is exploding: A half million USB devices were in use last year, and 10 million additional devices are expected to find their way to users by the end of this year. Dataquest forecasts that 50 million of the devices will be sold in 1999, and that number will double the following year.

Federal users have not jumped on the bandwagon. But observers believe that the convenience USB devices promise will create a demand that the government will not be able to resist.

USB, which is an input/output port design like the common parallel, serial, keyboard and mouse ports on PCs, allows devices to work automatically and without conflicts between each other. USB technology supports hot plug and play, which means users can plug in new peripherals and use them without restarting their PCs.

As many as 127 USB devices may be connected to a PC, which should satisfy even the most rabid gadget junkies. And because a USB port supplies power to peripherals, it will weed out the tangle of power cords and space-hogging power transformers that block outlets on power strips.

USB technology was considered hot nearly two years ago. But interest fizzled because of a lack of support in Microsoft Corp.'s popular operating systems, Windows 95 and Windows NT. "There was such hype when it came out, but you couldn't do anything with it," said Jodi Weinbrandt, Dell Computer Corp.'s group brand manager for federal marketing.

The tide has turned for two reasons. Windows 98 provides very good support for USB devices, so vendors can offer products that will work as intended. And there are now 100 million USB ports populating PCs, serving as potential receptacles for USB devices, said Nathan Brookwood, PC analyst for Dataquest.

PC vendors built the USB ports into PCs despite a lack of demand for them from customers because Microsoft required USB ports in its PC97 specification for Windows certification. Even more importantly, Intel Corp. built USB support into the chipsets it makes to go with its processors, so the feature was available to vendors at no additional cost, according to International Data Corp. As a result, more than 90 percent of all PCs sold in 1998 included USB ports.

Still, USB-compliant devices were not widely used before the release of Windows 98. Mike Ritter, desktop product marketing manager for Gateway Inc., described the situation as a "chicken-and-egg thing." Peripheral vendors wanted an established market for their products, while buyers waited for a critical mass of available peripherals before choosing the new technology. And the whole shebang was on hold, waiting for the built-in USB support Microsoft promised for Windows 98.

With Windows 98, users can buy a peripheral, and the odds are good that Windows will recognize the device. "It is really operating smoothly now," Ritter said. "It is recognized just like a PC Card."

"The peripherals are finally starting to show up, and people can use them on PCs that have been out there for the last year or so," said Steve Whalley, Intel connectivity initiatives manager and chairman of the USB Implementers Forum.

Shawn Sanford, Microsoft product manager for Windows 98, acknowledged that the new operating system's support assisted USB's resurgence. "With Windows 98, we were able to give USB a helpful shove," Sanford said. "Is this the answer to simplifying the PC experience? No, but it is a good step forward."

So far only Apple Computer Inc.'s iMac has taken the all-USB plunge: It has no ports other than USB. But Kevin Hause, senior analyst for IDC, predicted that PCs will start to follow Apple's lead by the end of the year. "This fall you are going to see systems come out that don't have PS/2 ports," Hause said, referring to the standard keyboard and mouse ports on the back of PCs.

Universally Ignored

Few federal agencies are demanding USB capability, even as an unused "check-off" feature, vendors said. "There haven't been many specifications requiring it," said Gary Newgaard, Compaq Computer Corp.'s director of federal sales.

Likewise, the Army's Enhanced Technology-1 contract for peripherals has had no call from buyers for USB products, said Steve Miller, product leader on the contract. "On ET-1, we haven't seen any orders for USB yet," he said. "I would think there would be interest."

A few USB products are beginning to trickle out to customers on NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II contract, according to SEWP manager Joanne Woytek. She said shoppers can find a USB adapter card from Compaq that will let them add USB ports to an existing PC. SEWP II also features a four-port hub from Unisys Corp. that will let users attach additional devices to an existing USB port.

Government Technology Services Inc. has seen limited USB interest, according to Mark Thoreson, inside sales manager. "I have had several requests for flat-panel monitors with USB hubs built in," he said.

Thoreson suggested that this lack of interest may be because the federal government has not adopted Windows 98 as a standard operating system. Most agencies are sticking with Windows 95 for the time being, while others are using Windows NT 4.0 or are planning to use Windows NT 5.0 when it ships next year. This will slow federal interest in USB because support for USB devices in Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 has been problematic. To head off potential problems, some PC vendors ship machines with the USB ports disabled in BIOS.

But federal agencies are likely to start asking for USB soon because of its advantages over older connectors. "I suspect we will see that as a checklist item in the next round of contracts," Dell's Weinbrandt said.

Thoreson noted that federal buyers will soon have the Windows 95 vs. Windows 98 question settled for them, as PC vendors stop shipping new PCs with Windows 95. "Most computer manufacturers are no longer offering Windows 95," he said.

In the short term, USB ports will be used for human interface devices, such as keyboards and mice. But users will truly see the benefits of USB connections when they are used for peripherals that can be finicky, including modems, printers, scanners, cameras and fingerprint identification devices.

The large number of potential devices suggests that PCs will need more USB ports than the two that are mounted on the back of most new PCs.

The answer will be hubs that split those ports into four or even seven. These hubs will take two primary forms: dedicated stand-alone hubs and hubs that are built into monitors. The millions of PCs in existence today with USB ports will require stand-alone hubs because they already have monitors that do not have built-in USB ports.

Users also need to check whether they need powered hubs, which cost more, or if they can settle for cheaper passive hubs.

A passive hub divides the power available from the PC's USB port among the hub's four ports, said Russ Davenport, director of marketing for Inside Out Networks Inc., an Austin, Texas, USB hub maker.

Passive hubs may be fine for low-power devices such as mice and keyboards, but scanners, modems and the like will demand more power than a passive hub can provide. These devices call for powered hubs, such as Inside Out's powered four-way and seven-way devices. These hubs even have independent power management for each of the ports, so a power problem with one device will not affect the other peripherals, Davenport said.

Monitors are a natural device to combine with a powered hub because they have a large power supply in them already. The monitor hubs also are easy to reach when users connect devices. Diane Bunton, Compaq's marketing manager for monitors, said this will encourage vendors to install USB hubs in most, but not all, monitors. "I don't think that we'll ever get to the point that every monitor is a USB hub because it does add cost," she said. That expense is $25 to $30 at the factory, according to another industry insider.

Many monitors also will be USB devices themselves, making them easier to adjust. "Instead of using arcane buttons to change settings, you'll be able to use a Windows 98 applet," Dataquest's Brookwood said. The same advantage for USB speakers means that users will not have to fiddle with volume settings in software in addition to the knobs on the front of speakers, he added.

With handy hot plug-and-play ports on desktop computers, agencies may decide to save money on less-used peripherals, such as scanners, by letting users sign them out from a pool as needed. Until now, setup and configuration headaches were too great to make this realistic. But now users can simply snap in a scanner via the USB, scan documents and return the scanner to the pool.

Such a practice also will cut down on desktop clutter, Intel's Whalley said. "The big advantage of USB is that you don't have to have all the devices attached all the time," he said. "I don't need scanners and joysticks cluttering up the desk all the time."

In addition, agencies using notebook computers will be able to use USB hubs and peripherals instead of the pricey proprietary docking stations that only work with a particular model of notebook computer. "Do you want to have a separate docking station for each laptop?" Davenport asked. He said some large agencies are looking at Inside Out's USB hubs for such applications.

Gary Thomas, a Coast Guard PC, Macintosh and notebook user, said replacing docking stations with USB hubs would be "a great use" of USB. "It would also be good if you have a mixed [Macintosh and Windows] environment because you can have some commonality of hardware," he said.

As USB gains momentum, vendors will introduce other kinds of peripherals using the interface, such as cable modems, Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line modems, Iomega Corp. Zip drives, hard disk drives and force feedback joysticks and flight yokes. These will enjoy the benefit of the easy connection, but high-speed devices such hard disk drives will find the USB interface a performance-choking bottleneck.

The solution for such devices will be IEEE 1394 Firewire, which is a speedy new technology that can work through USB ports to accelerate communication between PCs and their high-speed peripherals. But, like USB technology, Firewire will need time for support software to become widely available and before compliant devices appear en masse.

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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