The History and Future of USB
You likely have dozens of cables, cords, and devices that rely on a USB port to function. It’s gotten to be so ubiquitous that many of us assume it’s always been there, since the emergence of modern computers. But in reality, the USB port has a long and interesting history—and a future course of evolution set before it, including the popularization of USB type C.
The First Ports
Ports became commonly needed with the rollout of the first popular home PCs. People needed a convenient way to plug their mouse, keyboard, and monitor into the computer. There were PS/2 ports, which provided a decent short-term solution, but these were problematic for a few reasons; most notably, they relied on a number of different pins, which could be easily bent as you tried to plug the device in. There were also long parallel ports, with multiple rows of teeth that served as connectors. In some cases, you’d also have to rely on screws or metal clamps to make sure your device stayed plugged in reliably.
These ports were all we had access to until the mid-1990s, when it became obvious that we needed something better.
USB 1.1: The First Version of USB
The first iteration of USB was USB 1.1, which started emerging in the 1990s. It featured a maximum transfer rate of 12 megabits per second (Mbps), or 1.5 megabytes (MB) per second. That may not seem like much by today’s standards, but it was a major step up, and good enough reason by itself to convince manufacturers and consumers alike that serial ports, parallel ports, and of course the PS/2 ports were about to become obsolete. USB 1.1 cables had a USB standard A to standard B connection, which is still sometimes used today.
Of course, it took several years for USB 1.1 to fully catch on. Though first introduced in 1996, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that you’d see computers shipping with one or two USB ports available to consumers. Once those ports were commonly available, device manufacturers started designing keyboards, mice, printers, and other accessories that had USB connectors.
USB 2.0: The Next Generation
The USB 1.1 connector introduced a much simpler connection design; it was flat, relatively small, and sturdy, as there were no pins to worry about breaking. There also weren’t any screws or clamps to get involved, and it could only be plugged in one way. Developers kept this design when they introduced USB 2.0, in 2000, just a few short years after the first generation.
USB 2.0 could offer transfer rates of up to 480 megabits per second (Mbps), or 60 megabytes (MB) per second, a whopping 40 times as fast as the first generation. USB 2.0 was graciously backward compatible, easing its widespread adoption. It also boasted transfer rates fast enough to justify the creation of USB-based data storage; the first nail in the coffin for floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs as storage media.
USB 3.0: The Modern Era
Next came the development of USB 3.0 in 2008. As you might imagine, this marked another great leap forward in transfer rates, maxing out at 5.0 Gbps. In addition, this allowed higher bus power, offering a maximum of 900 mW as well as backward compatibility. A few years later, experts redid the naming convention, retroactively naming it USB 3.1. To most consumers, “3.0” was still sufficient to refer to 3.1.
In 2017, the 3.2 emerged, offering even faster speeds with the help of new transfer modes.
The 3.0 family remains the most popular standard in USB. You can note a 3.0+ connector by its signature blue color in the interior.
USB-C: Toward the Future
USB-C is a new type of USB, though it hasn’t yet fully caught on with audiences. It takes a different shape than its predecessors, which have dominated the market for 24 years, so people are reluctant to try it. But it’s better in every way; it has 24 pins (instead of 9), it can transfer power much faster, and it can support up to 40 Gbps of transfer speed, depending on the protocol. It also features the ability to transfer using different modes, allowing you to transfer multiple types of data (or video) simultaneously.
On top of that, USB-C ports are smaller and reversible, so you’ll no longer fumble with trying to insert it the correct way. USB-C is also powerful enough from an electricity transfer standpoint that it could even charge a laptop—or charge your phone much, much faster.
Despite still flying under the radar, USB-C represents the future of the USB port, and is commercially available. Its progressive shape has people seeing it as a fundamentally different port, but it offers all the perks of a traditional USB connection—just better. It’s only a matter of time before it catches on with manufacturers and consumers.