The oral history of USB

I’ve never had something that valuable happen, or something involving a retro interface that people look back on fondly; but I did have a somewhat memorable instance with an AT (not X) power supply one time:

My then employer was in the process of migrating to a new PBX; but emphasis on ‘in the process’, and in the meantime a venerable whitebox mid-tower running OS/2 Warp, some software nobody understood or knew how to touch; and a proprietary telecom interface card of some sort was doing the job(as it had for an unknown number of years, certainly well before I started).

Then one day it stopped. Some cap smell from the PSU, figure that will be no problem we have plenty of desktops around; pop it open and it wants an AT PSU; the two-dangerously-reversible-mobo-connectors-and-a-hard-AC-power-switch flavor. No 24 pin soft-switched nonsense from you kids these days. Swear vigorously.

I popped home during lunch to rummage through the strategic junk depository; found an AT PSU, we popped it in; and that heroic little box kept humming away until the PBX rollout was finished.

I can’t really disagree with removing a redundant-nothing whitebox PC running wholly unsupported and mysterious software from a vital part of the system; but I will note that a ~133MHz Pentium with some pitiful amount of RAM was replaced by 3-4U worth of $$$$ NEC gear probably a zillion times as powerful; so I have a great deal of respect for what the designers of the old system managed to do in the space allowed them; and the retirement of the old system was with due honors.


If memory serves, Intel made a small number of USB ports(possibly just 2, memory doesn’t serve that well) a standard chipset feature around that time to try to ‘prime the pump’ on USB adoption by making adding at least nominal support cost only what the connector and any supporting passives did. Led to a lot of unused USB ports, or barely-supported ones depending on the OS; but did mean that you could safely assume at least some USB hardware fairly quickly once MS and the peripheral vendors were properly ready.

That was a dark and loathsome trend; I can only hope that penitence became a thing across the industry. Digital cameras seemed to enjoy doing gratuitiously weird stuff: ‘why don’t we combine the USB storage access with the composite video out?’ At least some of the dumb cable tricks used by things like HDDs and CD drives were justified by the fact that those always needed a bit over the 500mA allowed; and had to scrounge a bit into neighboring ports(or, in one example I found in a junk drawer recently, actually build a little Li-ion battery into the external CD drive: thing was marketed for doing OS installs on servers and similar; and designed to sustain relatively brief periods of heavy use and charge when idle so as to stay within the spec when in use. Clever, if rendered obsolete by the ability of most IPMI cards to mount virtual images.)


Love it!

For a while in the early dial-up Internet era (1995?), our little 25-person company used a single-user-at-a-time 28.8k modem (USR of course!) via some sort of Netware modem sharing software. I finally got sick of doing the “who’s using the modem” tour when I needed it, so re-purposed a '486 with a few MB of RAM into a simple always-on shared gateway. Was even able to add a couple more modems.

A few years later setup a similarly discarded PC with qmail for everyone. That box lasted a good 5 years. Was replaced by a many $$$$ MS Exchange server.

Our poor head account couldn’t understand why our “IT budget” suddenly expanded. Turned out we’d never spent much on this stuff, just kept on re-purposing junked PCs and free software.

Good times!

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