On port street, SCSI will be hit by the Universal Serial Bus

It figures. Just as our SCSI and SCSI-2 connections finally were causing fewer
conflicts, SCSI is on the way out. That's right, we have another standard coming down the
pike--two of them, in fact, and both look like good bets.


I'm talking about the new Universal Serial Bus (USB) I/O architecture that will provide
a single four-pin, 12-megabit/sec connection for mice, keyboards, joysticks, scanners,
printers, digitizers and even telephones.


You can daisychain all these devices to one USB port--from 64 devices to more than 100,
depending on who's making the claims. Devices can be as much as 15 feet apart on the
daisychain. No need to open the case to upgrade your computer's peripherals, or even to
power down first. No fussing with parallel and serial connectors. Best of all, USB should
be relatively cheap--the cable is an inexpensive, flat four-wire affair.


It sounds great. But if 25 years' experience with PCs has taught me anything, it's that
no change of this magnitude is ever as simple as it sounds.


USB developers are being forced by market pressure to leapfrog the standards
committees, articularly the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and its 1394
FireWire standard. The standard eventually could coexist peacefully with USB, but I'm
betting on a rocky transition.


What does FireWire have going for it? For one thing, Texas Instruments Inc. already has
1394-compliant controller chipsets capable of awesome 400-megabit/sec I/O. Sony Corp. has
demonstrated a 1394-capable camcorder--the first of what should be a flood of neat
products for this fast interface.


The six-wire 1394 FireWire standard is much faster than USB and can provide lots of
power for devices such as external CD-ROM and hard drives. Look for 1394 implementations
to appear on the market by mid-1997.


Will USB arrive that soon on a computer near you? Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp. and
Compaq Computer Corp. are just some of the big names backing USB--even SCSI specialist
Adaptec Inc. reportedly is pushing it.


Probably the first big office application for USB will be a personal digital assistant
the likes of which current handheld PDAs only dream of becoming. USB makes a simple
connection to a telephone, so your new PC could screen calls, take messages, set up
conference calls, forward calls, read e-mail and respond to spoken commands. Mitel Corp.
of Kanata, Ont., already has demonstrated the first direct PC-telephone connection via
USB.


Of course, in theory you could do all those things with your PC right now, but only
after endless struggling with a slew of software and hardware conflicts.


Although home PC users will benefit from USB, government users should see even more
benefits. The cost of installing and debugging a useful peripheral often is close to or
higher than the cost of the peripheral itself, which greatly hinders agency upgrades.


With USB, you could just plug-and-play with any compatible device. And
USB-to-parallel/serial adapters should pop up to support the vast installed base of
modems, printers, scanners and so on.


USB already has a head start on the IEEE 1394 standard and should dominate the market
at the low end and in telephony. I see the 1394 FireWire standard as targeted more for
connecting things like large hard drives, high-performance CD-ROM drives and digital video
equipment to PCs and servers.


USB, because it's inexpensive and capable of daisychaining modems, printers, scanners
and phones on the same port, might even replace PC Cards. That would mean toting around
devices heavier than tiny PC Cards, but for many users it's a good tradeoff, and they no
longer would be limited to accessing one or two devices simultaneously.


USB mice and joysticks should arrive on the market first, followed by a flood of other
hardware. I certainly don't expect everything to work without a hitch, but this new
standard does look like a winner.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. He welcomes mail from readers. Write to him care of
Government Computer News, 8601 Georgia Ave., Suite 300, Silver Spring, Md. 20910.


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