Ahmed: Universal Serial Bus, driving us to modernity

By Abdul-Kareem Ahmed

Throughout history, there have been  a few ideas and inventions that seem to have shaped… Throughout history, there have been  a few ideas and inventions that seem to have shaped society so deeply that their consequences are still visible today. The discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, all the way to the rise of the internal combustion engine provide such examples. Though centuries have passed since their inception, these inventions are still at the root of our society and culture.

More recent society-changing inventions have taken the shape of the soda can, blue jeans and the personal computer. But these have been around for a generation or more. So it is a perfect time to ask, what is the invention that will define society and our culture today? What’s that one idea which has become a reflection of our attitude and, as such, has thoroughly ingrained itself in our daily routines?

I’ll venture a guess and cast my vote for the USB protocol for data transfer and power. Universal Serial Bus is a specification for communication between a device and a host, usually the personal computer. It was co-invented by Ajay Bhatt of Intel, the guy represented in that snazzy TV ad of theirs.

It has become the standard interface, replacing other communication protocols like the serial and parallel ports. Many everyday peripheral devices operate on the USB standard, such as computer mice, keyboards, flash drives and routers. Additionally, most digital cameras, printers and external hard drives have adopted the standard.

These are all devices that you probably own. You likely use the USB standard every single day without realizing it.

Another rising USB platform is the smartphone. Most smartphones have adopted USB for data transfer and for charging the battery. In late 2006 the Chinese government demanded all mobile phones manufactured thereafter use USB for charging, according to softpedia.com, a site that indexes technology news and information and hosts free software.

In early 2009, 17 mobile companies did the same. According to PC Magazine, the companies, including AT&T, LG and T-Mobile, adopted a form of USB as a standard for charging all mobile phones manufactured. Depending on when you bought your own phone, the results of the shift could be sitting in your pocket.

USB has reigned king as the data and power interface for electronics for most of the past decade. In an article in PCWorld magazine, Jeff Ravencraft of Intel mentioned that over six billion products using USB interface are on the market and more than two billion ship per year. USB truly is universal.

Besides the numbers, what else can we learn from this interface’s success? Well, we can realize much about ourselves as a society. The USB is a direct reflection of what consumers have valued for decades: convenience.

The newest version, USB 3.0, allows data transfer at 400 megabytes per second. It’s a reflection of our fast-paced lifestyle and our ongoing love for efficiency. I personally made sure that my latest computer build supported USB 3.0. I believe it’s here to stay.

So what is the future for this monumental standard? Wireless USB.

Originally developed by a consortium of tech companies, Wireless USB intends to replace the physical USB cable entirely, allowing wireless data transfer between personal computers and peripheral devices. Wi-Fi — or wireless Internet — also transfers data, but at a lower frequency with higher range than Wireless USB. With its high bandwidth capability, Wireless is perfect for personal use in transferring large files. As mobility and accessibility continue to attract electronics buyers, it’s hard to see Wireless USB failing.

Thus far, the USB has accomplished much with little recognition, a sort of unsung hero of the electronics realm. It allows us to connect to others across the globe, to communicate effectively with each other and to share a common practice with each other. Though it might not seem so, the USB has been able to break barriers in a subtle manner. Think about it: Keyboards can perpetuate differences as character keys can be different based on the language. However, there is no English or Chinese or Arabic USB cable — it’s all the same for everyone.