Thursday, June 29, 2006

Connectivity with ‘Universal’ way

The Consumer Electronic (CE) market is in a revolutionary phase now. Because of the changing needs of consumers, organizations are forced to come up with new set of products in a very short span of time with more features and less price. Broadly the CE devices are used for Communication (Mobile phones), Storing personal information (PDA) and for Entertainment (Digital cameras, music players). At one end CE devices are marching towards ‘Convergence’ phenomenon, where the above said three elements are integrated into a single device (Say iPAQ) and on another end devices are marching towards ‘Divergence’ phenomenon, where each CE device is produced with a unique purpose in mind. For example latest Sony T5 cameras are having very high resolutions (5 Mega pixels) which are aimed at pro-sumers or photo-enthusiasts. This Convergence and Divergence (C & D) has created huge variety of devices which is making the consumer confused. Irrespective of the type providing connectivity to the Personal Computer (PC) or Internet has become the necessary requirement for all these devices. After working in the consumer connectivity domain for about five years now I am able to see the ‘Universal Serial Bus’ (USB) is emerging as a technology which is addressing the need for connectivity and truly living up to its name ‘Universal’. The reminder of this write-up will compare USB with other technologies and talk about some of the limitations of USB as well.

The Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a serial data transfer technology which can transfer data up to 480 Mbps. Apart from the data transfer rate that USB is very ideal for CE devices because they support the ‘Plug-and-Play’ functionality which is the true differentiator. Because of this PnP functionality there is no need for the consumer to install any additional device drivers for communication. By design USB is a ‘Bus Powered’ and external devices can draw current up to 500 mA. Because of this feature CE devices can be charged using the USB cable itself without any additional power supplies. For example Apple’s iPOD can be charged by connecting it to the PC. Added to that USB is more ‘Compact’ for CE devices. Invention of mini-A, mini-B USB interfaces have become ideal for digital cameras.

The USB technology can be compared with Bluetooth (BT) and intra-red (IR) technologies. But BT and IR operate in the ‘wireless’ whereas USB is in the ‘wired’ technology. Even though BT and IR became popular because of the wireless nature they lack the speed and the security that USB is providing. As mentioned above USB can transfer data up to 480 Mbps whereas BT can transfer only up to 1 Mbps and their signals are highly susceptible. In order to bridge this ‘wireless’ gap the Wireless-USB (WUSB) is being introduced which I am sure will be a ‘killer’ technology. This has advantages of USB and other wireless technologies like BT and IR.

Having said that, the USB has its own disadvantages. One of the main problems is ‘Interoperability’. There are roughly about 2 billion CE devices and making them work with each other is a huge challenge. Even though USB forum imposes strict certification tests in order to have the official logos on it, lot of vendors are selling their USB devices without getting certified by the USB forum. These devices are cheap in nature but may introduce serious interoperability issues in the future. From a consumer standpoint it is always better to buy certified USB devices.

With more and more CE devices are introduced on to the market and changing consumer needs are making the competition for ‘Connectivity’ more intensive. But at present USB is truly living up to its name and all set to face the competition with WUSB.

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