USB 2.0 trudges toward adoption

To hear USB 2.0 supporters tell it, this year's Comdex was when the oft-delayed standard would finally make it to the big time.

Maybe next year.

That's not to say support for the standard, officially called Hi-Speed USB, isn't growing. A fair number of companies set up booths here at Comdex in the USB 2.0 Pavilion. But most of the vendors in attendance aren't exactly well-known brands.

For example, a company called Bafo Technologies is showing its USB 2.0 product line, which includes two and five-port USB 2.0 PCI cards and a USB/FireWire combo card.

And there's Pacific Digital Corp., which currently sells a USB 2.0-compatible 16X-by-10X-by-40X external CD-RW drive for US$150. The company plans to ship a 24X-by-10X-by-40X version later in November, priced about $200 (after a $20 rebate).

There's also the TravelScan-Pro from Ambir Technology, which uses USB 2.0's speedy 480-megabits-per-second transfer speed to quickly move scanned documents and images from a portable scanner to a PC. An Ambir spokesperson estimates the price at $100 to $150.

Almost There

Just because the vendors at this year's show aren't household names doesn't mean USB 2.0 is failing, says Roger Kay, an analyst with International Data Corp. It's just taking longer to arrive than many first expected.

"We're still on the front edge of that adoption curve," he says. USB 2.0 won't move into the mainstream until universal support is there, he says.

That universal support includes solid drivers for today's most popular operating systems, he says. Microsoft Corp. decided not to include USB 2.0 support in the first shipping version of Windows XP. Instead, Microsoft expects to offer the driver as a download later (currently there is a beta version available.)You can't blame Microsoft for skipping USB 2.0 this time out, Kay says. The standard simply wasn't solid enough for Microsoft to include. The USB Implementers Forum should have had the standard ready in time for XP, but it came up against repeated delays, he says.

USB 2.0's tangled history shows that as far back as April 2000 supporters were predicting products by the end of that year. It wasn't until June 2001 that backers of the technology admitted they may have been a bit too optimistic about the technology's rise to ubiquity.

IDC's Kay says that while the road has been rocky for USB 2.0, it's a solid technology that will eventually prevail. "There are plenty of uses for it," he says. "It has a real strong reason to be."

Next Year, Really

Right now the only way to use USB 2.0 peripherals is by inserting a PCI card into your desktop or a PC card into your notebook. For the standard to hit the mainstream, chip set vendors need to integrate it into their products, Kay says. Chip set support will make it easy and cheap for system vendors to carry USB 2.0 in their systems.

However, Intel Corp.--a major chip-set maker and a backer of USB 2.0--opted not to include the standard in its recently launched 845 chip set. In fact, the company won't offer support for USB 2.0 until it launches a new product sometime next year.

In the meantime, vendors continue to sign on, producing products in anticipation of USB 2.0's eventual breakthrough. A list from the USB Implementers Forum shows currently more than 30 companies with USB 2.0-compatible products in the market or expected to be in the market soon.

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Tom Mainelli

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