The unlikely origins of USB, the port that changed everything

By Joel Johnson – In the olden days, plugging something into your computer—a mouse, a printer, a hard drive—required a zoo of cables.

If you’ve never heard of those things, and if you have, thank USB.

When it was first released in 1996, the idea was right there in the first phrase: Universal Serial Bus. And to be universal, it had to just work. “The technology that we were replacing, like serial ports, parallel ports, the mouse and keyboard ports, they all required a fair amount of software support, and any time you installed a device, it required multiple reboots and sometimes even opening the box,” says Ajay Bhatt, who retired from Intel in 2016. “Our goal was that when you get a device, you plug it in, and it works.”

But it was an initial skeptic that first popularized the standard: in a shock to many geeks in 1998, the Steve Jobs-led Apple released the groundbreaking first iMac as a USB-only machine.

Now a new cable design, Type-C, is creeping in on the typical USB Type-A and Type-B ports on phones, tablets, computers, and other devices—and mercifully, unlike the old USB cable, it’s reversible. The next-generation USB4, coming later this year, will be capable of achieving speeds upwards of 40Gbps, which is over 3,000 times faster than the highest speeds of the very first USB.

Bhatt couldn’t have imagined all of that when, as a young engineer at Intel in the early ’90s, he was simply trying to install a multimedia card. The rest is history, one that Joel Johnson plugged in to with some of the key players. more>

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