Universal serial bus (USB) has been around for some time. And theling. Why, then, has it taken nearly two years for the technology to catch on? David Smith reports. technology - a method of replacing serial and parallel ports for user interface devices such as keyboards, printers, scanners and cameras - promises huge advantages over traditional links between hardware and appliances.
But it is only recently that the industry has begun to push USB as the de facto standard for PC users. It is only now that resellers and users are starting to demand USB-enabled systems and peripherals, and only now that vendors and the channel are throwing their weight behind this well orchestrated re-branding exercise.
But even in the face of this new-found enthusiasm for the standard, there are some in the industry who remain unconvinced. The naysayers claim USB's plug and play promise is still a long way from being delivered. All too often, valuable time and money are wasted hunting down drivers on the web, hanging on expensive telephone support lines and fiddling with unexpectedly complex installation routines.
Lacklustre support from some peripheral manufacturers, upon which the market relies, is another issue. Add to this the threat posed by Firewire, a comparable interface technology, which happens to operate at twice the speed of even the next generation of USB, and the case for taking the bus becomes a little less convincing.
So what are USB's merits and disadvantages and what are the opportunities for resellers? Is the technology only relevant for dealers targeting home users and the smallest business enterprises, or is it set to become the standard among corporate buyers?
Last month, Entrega, a recently established vendor of USB and a member of the USB Implementers' Forum, hosted a roundtable to discuss the state of the market and the various factors that will affect growth. Also present were representatives of USB device vendors Apple, Agfa and Logitech, as well as mail-order company Computer Warehouse.
David Murray, vice president of product marketing at Entrega, explains that the main hurdle was persuading leading component manufacturers to accept USB as the connectivity standard for PCs.
"The first thing we had to do was convince Intel," he says. "That turned out to be the easy part. USB had a lot of strategic advantages for Intel because it uses CPU horsepower. It's a great chipset feature and makes PCs easier to use. Intel bought into USB quickly."
Murray is certainly qualified to talk with authority on this subject.
An early USB developer and evangelist at Compaq, he not only helped define the feature set and initial architecture, but he also holds two USB patents and has two more pending.
What proved more difficult, he admits, was securing OS compatibility.
It wasn't until the second release of Windows 95 - which was only available to OEMs and not to existing owners of USB-equipped hardware - that Microsoft added USB support. And even then, it was only partial. While the OS could recognise devices such as digital video cameras, it was unable to connect with mice and certain audio equipment.
In fact, it was Apple that set the wheels of the bus in motion. With the unprecedented success of the USB-enabled iMac, users began to experience, for the first time, plug and play technology that really worked. According to Murray, as iMac sales soared, Andy Grove, chairman of Intel - commonly credited with creating the initial impetus behind USB - called Apple and said: "Thanks for doing in six months what I've been trying to do for the past two years."
The release of Windows 98 gave USB the boost it so badly needed. But by this point, the damage had already been done. PC vendors had jumped the gun: they provided USB ports in anticipation of Microsoft adding USB capability to Windows 95 and bringing out Windows 98 sooner than it did.
But the peripheral manufacturers were more cautious, unwilling to soak up the cost of putting out an identical line of USB-enabled products for such a small potential customer base.
Clive Hudson, European vice president at Entrega, highlights another factor responsible for poor early sales. "The slow uptake is not the exclusive result of apprehension on the part of the peripherals vendors. To a certain extent, inventory management issues govern the channel's sales strategies," he says. "Large inventories of old products were stopping resellers and distributors from stocking up on peripherals that effectively would have outdated the older devices."
Finally, the necessary level of co-ordination between hardware, software and peripherals vendors appears to have been achieved. The channel is also showing awareness of the availability and ease of use of USB devices.
At the same time, Christmas provided retailers and resellers with the surge in consumer demand they needed to clear out old stock.
According to Entrega, since March, sales of USB-enabled scanners have risen from five per cent of the UK scanner market to about 35 per cent.
Printers are up from four per cent to about 20 per cent.
Jonathan Kelly, chief executive of Tech Direct - Europe's USB online shop, confirms that this has been the case. "Just last month, Tech Direct sold 40 per cent more parallel port scanners than USB ones. This month, it's a 50:50 split. I'll leave you to decide whether that's due to the recent surge in demand for USB kit or the success of our online shop," he says.
With statistics like these, resellers can no longer afford to ignore the inexorable rise of USB. Kelly believes the technology is also much easier to sell because it is so easy to use. Customers, especially less experienced PC users, are attracted by the plug and play functionality and the fact that for some devices, a separate power supply is not required.
"From a reseller point of view, we all benefit," says Kelly. "The channel spends far too much money trying to support products sold on a five or six per cent margin. With an old-fashioned scanner, for example, we invariably have to provide telephone support for installation. If problems persist, we might then have to send out a courier to pick up and replace perfectly good kit simply because the customer is convinced it is faulty. In the worst case scenario, this happens more than once and the margin quickly disappears. With USB peripherals, we have seen a 50 per cent reduction in support costs."
But Kelly acknowledges there is still some way to go. "Windows 95 has a huge user base and NT does not support USB, so the technology is primarily targeted at the home market, Mac users and those running Windows 98," he says.
Support from certain peripheral vendors is still sluggish. Kelly says there are only one or two USB-enabled laser printers on the market. He also admits that the price premium on USB products has an adverse effect on sales. The Umax 1220 flatbed scanner costs about 12 per cent more than the parallel port model, while compatibility pushes up the price of the Iomega Zip drive by 25 per cent.
However, Kelly believes it will be only a matter of time before price parity is achieved and the corporate customer base climbs on board - a view that is supported by Apple and Entrega.
The long-awaited Windows 2000 will support USB and, despite the constant stream of criticism aimed at Microsoft's upcoming OS, only the foolhardy would argue against the idea that the next incarnation of NT will be the crucial component that drives corporate PC sales.
In fact, there are already USB products aimed at the corporate market, including Entrega's four and seven-port hubs, USB-to-parallel printer converters and PCI upgrade kits. Hudson claims these products will address two key issues - how to connect legacy devices to USB computers and how to upgrade legacy PCs.
The other corporate killer app is external storage, says Murray. USB hard drives are already proving popular among portable and laptop-wielding businessmen who want a mobile and easily transferable storage option.
At the same time, Apple has responded to criticism that all too often the USB plug and play promise is not being upheld, by introducing intelligent driver download (IDD). Nick Graves, European marketing manager at Apple, who attended the roundtable, says: "If a device requires its own driver, the IDD tells the system, which automatically downloads the correct driver from the web. This will be a standard feature in the not-too-distant future."
The participating vendors are also supporting the cross-vendor logo scheme, to ensure that peripheral devices which claim to adhere to the standard offer a hassle-free connection process. Only those devices that have been tested by the implementers' forum will be allowed to display the logo.
So, the future looks bright for USB. But as is so often the case in this industry, just as the market decides to board one bus, a faster and more comfortable one appears from around the corner. Firewire, or IEEE1394, has actually been around for some time. It offers all the advantages of USB, but at nearly 20 times the speed. Firewire transfers data at 400Mbps - more than double the rate of USB 2, due for release later this year - and upcoming versions could increase connectivity to 1600Mb/s.
Firewire was developed by Apple, which recently dealt with antipathy in the industry by scrapping plans to levy an exclusive licence fee on manufacturers building the technology into their products. The result is that Compaq, Sony, Toshiba, Philips, Mitsubishi, Matsushita, Panasonic, JVC, Kodak and Canon are all shipping Firewire multimedia packages for the home market, while dozens of other computer and multimedia vendors have committed to shipping compatible products this year.
Firewire is capable of supporting higher bandwidth devices, but USB proponents claim there is little operating support and any peripherals that do cater for it are expensive. The advantage of Firewire is that anyone who has modern home video equipment and a computer has the ability to create content that a few years ago would have been impossible for home movies or school projects, which even last year required the additional expense of video input cards.
The market is much broader than some would care to admit.
Until recently, Firewire looked unlikely to make an impact on the mainstream PC market, for the simple reason that Intel refused to endorse the technology, committing itself instead to the next generation of USB. Pat Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's desktop division, said Firewire would quickly be relegated to a niche technology. But last month, Intel backtracked and joined the Firewire patent pool. Gelsinger said: "IEEE1394 enables the PC to add tremendous value to consumer electronics devices."
At the Entrega roundtable, Jonathan Cole, managing director of reseller Computer Warehouse, which boasts one of the largest USB customer bases in the UK, also came out unexpectedly on the side of the Firewire proponents.
Voicing his commitment to technological convergence as the only way forward for the industry, Cole pointed out that Firewire is already installed in more than one million homes in the UK because it comes as standard technology in Sky's digital set-top boxes.
Similarly, Sony's decision to build Firewire into the upcoming Playstation 2 console has also raised Firewire's profile among those vendors trying to crack the home market.
"In the next two to three years, I think you'll be hard pressed to find any consumer electronic device which doesn't include Firewire as standard," says Cole.
Perhaps he's right. And if he is, the PC industry is going to have to keep pace with these developments in technology. A representative of the IEEE 1355 Association - which was set up to promote the next generation of Firewire - points out: "USB, while simpler than Firewire, is still a bus and all the modern network technologies, such as switched Ethernet, ATM, fibre channel, Myrinet and Firewire, are switched."
The representative adds: "Any technology that isn't switched is obsolete before it even hits the streets. Sooner or later, the industry will have to shed the legacy of the bus and move to simple, switched networks. The sooner the legacy is shed, the less work and investment will have to be thrown away and done over again."
But, for the moment, at least, USB is in ascendance and should provide resellers with a fresh focus for selling customers peripherals and CE devices.
For the future, the battle lines are still being drawn and the contest will no doubt be an extremely interesting one. But one thing does appear certain - the days of parallel and serial ports on the PC are numbered.
USB - EASY AS ABC
With a USB-equipped computer, users do not have to worry about selecting the right serial port, installing expansion cards or the technical headaches of dip switches, jumpers, software drivers, IRQ settings, DMA channels and I/O addresses.
USB allows for almost limitless peripheral connections. Recent tests, or plug fests, have demonstrated that users can daisychain up to 127 devices for use on one PC.
The transfer rate on USB is fast: 12Mbps at its maximum rate to a low of 1.5Mbps. That's 100 times faster than ordinary serial port connections and about ten times faster than connections to a standard parallel port.
There's one type of plug and a one-size-fits-all connector for every peripheral. And with an up-to-date OS, users can swap devices without having to reboot the host PC.
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