Where the heck is USB 2.0?
Backers of the next-generation interface - successor to the ubiquitous-but-pokey USB 1.1 standard - predicted in April 2000 that USB 2.0 products would hit shelves later that year. Connect these devices to a PC with a USB 2.0 port, they said, and you'll enjoy blazing 480-megabits-per-second transfer rates (up from USB 1.1's 12 mbps).
So we waited - and 2000 ended with no USB 2.0 products in sight. Over the last six months USB 2.0 - also dubbed Hi-Speed USB - has become, like Bluetooth, a technology that seems perpetually “on the way”. Meanwhile, USB 2.0 backers have remained largely quiet.
Then, this week, peripherals vendor Addonics announced plans to offer a special USB 2.0 cable for use with its own USB 2.0-ready optical and hard drives. The company also plans a special add-in card for your PC (or a PC Card for your notebook), because standard USB ports work but don't offer the faster transfer speeds of USB 2.0. And finally, you'll need to install Addonic's own software drivers to make it all work (Microsoft has yet to release USB 2.0 drivers for its operating systems).
A few other USB 2.0-based products are available. Iogear and Adaptec both offer PCI-based USB 2.0 cards for PCs - although neither yet offer the drivers necessary to make them work. Also, several companies, here and in Japan, are offering devices that use the standard, but few vendors yet provide the appropriate drivers.
But don't expect USB 2.0 to become a part of your current PC - or even a new one - any time soon. Even backers don't expect a wider rollout until later this year.
So what happened?
Intel: A little too optimistic
To hear USB 2.0 supporters tell it, the rollout delay isn't due to a problem with the specification itself, but overeager estimates last year.
“The six-month delay ... that was just being overly optimistic about development schedules,” says Jason Ziller, chair of the USB Implementers Forum and an Intel technology manager.
In defence of the forum, he says it is actually quite remarkable to have a solid specification ready to roll now, just two years after the formation of the USB 2.0 standards group.
However, analyst Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group isn't convinced the specification-creation process went as smoothly as supporters suggest.
“We were supposed to have parts by now, but there was a problem with the specification,” Enderle says. More to the point, he blames Intel - a major proponent of USB 2.0 - for the slowdown.
Intel intends to put USB 2.0 on motherboards, and that will give the technology the boost it needs. According to Intel's Ziller, the company plans to integrate USB 2.0 into an as-yet-unnamed chip-set product early next year.
“USB 2.0 is a good technology, but Intel is having an execution problem, and it shows in this [USB 2.0] area,” he says.
Enderle says we may see USB showing up on some high-end desktops, and a few peripheral products, by the end of this year. However, he doubts it will appear widely until the middle of 2002.
But Ziller says he expects USB 2.0 to ship into many homes later this year - coinciding with Microsoft's launch of Windows XP. This is despite Microsoft's decision not to include native support for USB 2.0 in that upcoming operating system.
The XP question
Enderle says Microsoft's decision to not include the drivers hurts USB 2.0's momentum, but certainly doesn't kill it. And he doesn't blame Microsoft for skipping the specification, which simply isn't ready to go yet.
“They [Microsoft] didn't have any choice,” he says. “The specification wasn't solid” when Microsoft froze Windows XP's feature selection.
Intel's Ziller says the entire issue is merely one of bad timing, and says Microsoft's decision won't slow adoption of USB 2.0.
The company's decision, however, to support USB on only Windows Me, Windows 2000, and Windows XP means that users of any other version of Windows must look to third-party developers to get the drivers they need. Microsoft hasn't said when, but it plans to provide USB 2.0 drivers for Windows Me and Windows 2000 as downloadable upgrades.
Giga's Enderle says one direct result of USB 2.0's slow release is the growth of another high-speed interface, IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire). This standard, which transfers data at about 400 megabits per second, has grown more popular during the wait for USB 2.0, he says. It's especially useful for products, such as digital video cameras and high-end scanners, which would benefit from the high-speed transfer rates. A faster version of 1394--expected to offer speeds of up to 1.6 gigabits per second - is also in the works.
“USB 2.0 was supposed to take out 1394,” Enderle says, largely because it was supposed to be cheaper. However, the delay gave 1394 new life.
“If USB 2.0 was out earlier we'd be talking now about the death of 1394,” he says.
Intel's Ziller disagrees, and says USB 2.0 was never meant to replace 1394, which he sees as a complementary technology. “We don't consider 1394 competition,” he says.
Instead, Ziller suggests USB 2.0 will fulfill a role as a high-speed PC and peripherals connection, while1394 will serve as a high-speed PC and consumer-electronics connection.
Regardless of whether people consider 1394 and USB 2.0 competitors, Ziller says he's confident that starting later this year, and throughout next year, the standard will migrate down through the entire spectrum of PCs. Eventually it will reach the same level of ubiquity as today's USB 1.1 standard.