For this week’s Pioneers in Tech, we’re looking into the story of the USB. Like so many now-ubiquitous innovations, USB technology has a fascinating origin story you probably don’t know—and it might make you think twice about the “old” USB drives and cords cluttering your desk drawers.
In 1994, Ajay Bhatt, an Indian-born computer architect working for Intel, found himself frustrated by his school-age daughter’s difficulty in connecting a printer to the family computer. Such a task should be as easy as plugging an electrical cord into an outlet, Bhatt thought. He pitched the idea of “Universal Serial Bus” technology to his Intel colleagues, and they went for it. Intel began building USB support into its chips. In 1998, Apple shipped the first USB-compatible consumer product, the iMac G3. Then Microsoft built USB compatibility into Windows 98. The USB was indeed universal.
Intel owned the USB patents, and the decision was made to keep the technology open and royalty-free as a sort of public good. In interviews, Bhatt has said his invention wasn’t created for the money but to bring about change. “It’s not very often that somebody gets a chance to bring about this big a change,” he told Business Insider. Although he didn’t make money off the USB, the invention did bring Bhatt a curious bit of celebrity. In 2009, Intel produced a popular TV ad featuring the “rock star” Ajay Bhatt—though it didn’t feature the real Bhatt. Instead, he was portrayed by the actor Sunil Narkar.
Over the years, Bhatt has had to explain multiple times the reason behind what some call the “USB paradox”: why at least half the time one puts them in the wrong way. Turns out, making the technology reversible would have cost twice as much, so the team stuck with a one-sided design as a cost-containment measure to ensure more likelihood of consumer adoption.
Photo: Mehaniq / Unsplash