USB is one of those second generation technologies that were built to scale. As technologies like Serial and Parallel Ports, Parallel ATA hard drives and PCI were pushed to their limits it became clear that a proper rethink was needed. No one ever planned for the first generation of technology to last so long, which resulted in increasingly outlandish means of ekeing out more performance.
So with replacements like USB, SATA and PCI-Express engineers planned for the future. As each new generation increased speeds, it would do so without killing compatibility with existing devices on the market. This focusing on scaling when designing the first generation has created technologies that are enduring and evolving without requiring constant upgrading.
We are even seeing a conscious planning for the future, driven by motherboard manufacturers. USB 3 has been commonplace on motherboards for a year now, and three of the top four manufacturers are already shipping PCI-Express 3.0 based products (We did ask the fourth, ASUS, about its plans for PCI-E and for now there are none). We are also starting to see USB 3 move beyond external hard drives, with Transcend announcing a USB 3 card reader to the delight of videographers earlier this week (They should probably avoid using a non-USB 3 Macbook Pro to illustrate it though).
With Apple now pushing Intel’s Thunderbolt technology for high bandwidth external connections (curiously enough Thunderbolt is PCI-Express based) USB has fallen out of favour in OSX land. In Windows land things are looking better, and USB 3 is now consistently mentioned as a selling point when we are briefed on new laptop models. In fact, one of the big selling points is the benefits of USB 3 ports for charging smartphones and tablets.
Last year we saw motherboard manufacturers introduce technologies like Gigabyte’s On/Off charge and 3x power. These allow for charging via USB when devices are powered off, and some power circuitry trickiness to pump out more juice while charging devices like tablets. This has turned up on some laptops, and now the USB Implementers Forum has announced plans for a new USB power delivery subspec.
Designed to work with both USB 2 and USB 3 connections, it ups power delivery to an astonishing 100W (Thunderbolt is only capable of 10W) while allowing devices to better communicate their power requirements. Power Supply manufacturers in particular must be rubbing their hands in glee, as this could potentially mean devices like printers and monitors could be powered via USB.
From the brief announcement one suspects that it will require new hardware for power delivery to work, which will likely turn up on motherboards well before it appears on laptops. But it will enable a whole new usage model for USB, and should hopefully be suitable for some time. Tablets already ship with proprietary charging cables, because USB power is insufficient. By implementing a good USB power delivery spec this should hopefully be a short lived thing.