To USB or not to USB

There was good news and bad news for USB (Universal Serial Bus) users coming out of the Mobile Insights conference this week.

Stealing a page from the Marine Corps recruiting ad, USB will soon be all it can be. The technology is being used to give soldiers a heads-up display for wearable computers as well as infrared, laser, and thermal sights on their weapons.

Pacific Consulting, whose wearable PC – dubbed Land Warrior – will be used by the armed forces, will deploy an embedded host version of USB from TransDimension that will allow the military to add peripherals to weapons, including cameras. Digital cameras could give a soldier the ability to point his gun around a corner at the enemy while viewing him on-screen and never exposing himself to enemy fire.

For this and other reasons, both privately and publicly expressed, USB – the low-level interface found on almost every desktop and notebook PC – was the surprise topic of conversation at Mobile Insights.

Other than USB being used on the warpath, the reason for all the talk was a delay in the deployment of the next version, USB 2.0, and at the same time the promise of USB 1.1, which is soon to appear on handheld devices and in set-top boxes.

USB On the Go, the embedded specification for a host version of the interface is currently in .8 revision by the USB Implementers Forum. Up until now, USB use on smaller devices has been restricted to providing connectivity to larger USB hosts for data and file synchronization. However, when USB On the Go is finally approved – most likely Version 1.0 will be ready in the third quarter – users can expect to find a host version embedded in handheld devices, cellular handsets, and set-top boxes, according to David Murray, vice president of marketing at TransDimension, in Irvine, Calif. A host version allow peripheral manufacturers to connect devices to handhelds rather than the handheld merely being the peripheral to a USB host.

Once deployed, companies such as Pioneer plan to embed USB in set-top boxes for attachment of peripherals, including keyboards or even hard drives. This would allow users to download movies through the set-top box without the use of players such as the TiVo device.

In addition, digital camera users will be able to view their pictures directly on the television.

One of the first handheld manufacturers to deploy USB will be Handspring Inc., according to a source in the industry.

However, despite the fact the USB may become an aid to warriors in battles around the world and couch potatoes at home, there was also some bad news for USB enthusiasts coming out of the Mobile Insights conference.

Major mobile industry players, including IBM Corp., discussed delays in deployment of USB 2.0 at the conference.

“We will only put interfaces that have wide market acceptance [in our systems]. That means that we need to have multiple applications to support them and external devices that support them as well,” said Leo Suarez, director of worldwide product marketing for IBM Mobile Systems in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Suarez and other do not expect USB 2.0 to be available before 2002.

The Intel initiative to boost performance of the ubiquitous serial interface from 12Mbps to 480Mbps will eventually be supported Suarez added.

“It is not a matter of if, but of when,” Suarez said.

It also appears that chip set manufacturers are reluctant to make the chip sets because it is expected that Intel will eventually incorporate USB 2.0 into its own chip set.

Meanwhile, Gerry Purdy, president and founder of Mobile Insights and the conference, also said that most OEMs are already dealing with mid-2002 pricing and specifications while USB 2.0 pricing is still an unknown.