How USB happened

Originally published at: How USB happened | Boing Boing


Obligatory (and still AWESOME)



Got a Beta Max video tape feel to it…


See, and I thought they were just classical objects but in 4D


Also obligatory:


I dispute the existence of a USB Superposition.

The phenomenon is more easily explained by random flipping from Up to Down [or vise-versa] even after being observed.


There is always chance in noise from gathered data so observing a state may still end up with the opposite expected result when plugging the USB. Though errors are decreased when observing


I’m sad that they didn’t make the effort to define the low-level behavior of a COM port or a parallel port over USB, which would have allowed us to use USB to COM port adapters without loading a driver program.


At one point, I had started thinking every system would be getting PCMCIA slots for all their peripherals, then along came USB. It made a lot more sense and was easier to pronounce.


PCMCIA had such a great pneumonic, though; since it’s hard to argue with the fact that People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.


I was always sceptical of this proposition, and once resorted to labeling all my equipment with arrows indicating which direction the contacts faced. But I could never remember whether that meant “turn the cable/device towards this arrow,” or “opposite.”
Well played, Universe.


The great tragedy of USB is that Ajay’s original design was reversible. They cut that from the standard at the last moment to cut costs and opted to “require the USB symbol be printed on the upward facing side of the connector” so you’d know how to orient it. Well, we all know how well that worked out.

The great victory of USB is one that is in danger of being forgotten entirely- universally safe hot plugging. Kids today (lawn, etc) don’t realize that back in the day it wasn’t safe to plug and unplug things while they were on. Do that with something like the floppy drive on an Apple II or the parallel printer on a PC XT and you likely instantly fry one or both devices. The rule of thumb was that serial ports (joysticks, external modems, etc) were okay, but parallel devices were not (printers, external drives, SCSI devices, etc). However if you wanted to be as safe as possible, you didn’t hot-plug anything.

The fact that you can just assume everything is safe to hot plug nowadays is actually a quiet unsung revolution. It’s designed into everything now.


The fact that you can just assume everything is safe to hot plug nowadays is actually a quiet unsung revolution. It’s designed into everything now.

I wish that were true. Pulling an SD memory card out of a computer that’s only reading from the card can damage it in such a way that it will crash any computer or digital camera that it is subsequently plugged in to.

My first exposure to USB was at a Microsoft conference where Bill Gates tried to illustrate how revolutionary plug-and-play was by plugging a pair of USB speakers into a computer during a live, on-stage demo. Needless to say, the computer blue-screened to the delight of the throngs of software developers in the auditorium.

I think only Tandem ever really knew how to make devices hot-pluggable.


I recently bought a stereo receiver that used a serial cable for updating firmware. While I have dozens of such cables in storage somewhere, I decided it was quicker and easier to order one from that place up the river.1 When it came, I opened it and experienced the following thoughts: (1) That’s not a serial cable. (2) That’s a parallel printer cable. (3) They still make parallel printer cables?

I do have a printer with a parallel interface on a shelf in my office, but nothing to plug it into, unless I fire up the old Morrow CP/M machine (which I used to do regularly just for the heck of it, but haven’t done in years). Anyone know a good use for a nice parallel printer cable.

1Cost me $2.50. Remember how much printer cables used to cost? It was always heartbreaking to unpack a new system, and realize you had to drive over to someplace like Comp USA to pony up a week of grocery money to get the system to work.


Lol I worked at Tandem at my first job out of college,never expected to see that name again!

Except for the fact that there’s no consistency on how USB-A ports are oriented….and so many cables just don’t have anything printed on them. What a stupid decision all to save a couple pennies on the connector cost.

Yup - except for when they aren’t - and it’s always fuzzy. I’ve a blown a more than few PS/2 ports in my day from hot-swapping - it wasn’t until later that I learned that they were never designed for this. Also blown a few Amigas in my time hot swapping mice.

There was IEEE1394 (FireWire) which pre-dated USB and was arguably a superior interface in many ways but it just never got the same market share as USB.

I agree that USB definitely brought the concept of hot swappable devices that can be safely unplugged without damaging the peripheral or host to the masses.

There was this one that was pretty legendary:

To be fair Windows 98 was the first Windows release with USB support. The whole concept modern of Plug and Play was new to Windows 95 and even then it was dicey at best.

That’s not the fault of USB, though. The interface controller on the card should be resilient against this and not corrupt the file system. Hot swapping SD cards is a pretty normal things to do. (FWIW I’ve never had this happen - maybe you had some sort of counterfeits? They are a scourge.)

I do a lot of embedded systems stuff in my spare time and having an RS232 interface is often mandatory for programming or debugging devices. These days you can get really fancy USB to serial adapters that you can even easily repurpose as JTAGs for super cheap. I’ve gotten rid of boxes and boxes of old cables over the past few years. I do try to keep at least one of everything on hand just in case, though. I still have a C64 expansion slot to RS232 adapter kicking around…just in case!


Yep, I’d argue that USB eclipsing Firewire is a textbook case of the mediocre being the enemy of the good. Besides the throughput advantages, (which are only now being surpassed by widespread deployment of USB 3, Thunderbolt etc), IEEE1394 having timestamps, being daisy-chainable and operating peer-to-peer without using CPU resources, is so much cooler for multimedia applications. (too bad Intel didn’t agree, as they threw their support behind the homegrown USB). Have wondered if this might have been a similar dynamic to the Native Signal Processing dispute between Intel and Microsoft.


My USB->Serial adapter has around 8" of cable, that’s too short to reach to the back of the receiver, hence why I needed a cable. It’s fine for attaching to all the other devices where I occasionally need serial, for example the scantron device which I hope to hell to never have to use again, and my JP1 adapter for a bunch of remote controls.


Can you please give me a phonetic rendering of your pronunciation of PCMCIA? Actually, I want that for “USB” too…