The History of the USB Drive

FATS Digital - The History of USB

It’s easy to take the humble USB (Universal Serial Bus) drive for granted. Most of us use them in our everyday lives. In a connected world of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi hotspots & super-fast fibre Internet, a physical drive may seem a bit antiquated but the reality is nothing beats the reliability, speed and ease of use of USB drives.

Life Before USB

Before USB drives were introduced, physical media came in many different formats – the two mostly widely used were ¼ inch floppy disks (1.44MB of data) and CD/DVDs (from 650MB-8.7GB of data). There were issues with both – floppy disks were quickly becoming outdated due to their limited storage space and CDs and DVDs were for the most part single load forms of media. There are of course re-writable CD/DVDs, but their patchy reliability and compatibility coupled with the fact that you have to re-write and close the session each time you load data meant that these have never really taken off with consumers and businesses alike. USB drives came about as the bi-product of the rise of USB ports as the primary connection port for PCs.

Before the introduction of the USB port computers used a number of different ports (serial, parallel, PS/2 etc.) to connect peripherals and transfer data. There were a multitude of different styles, each with it’s own specifications and constraints – each with only one device in mind. Keyboards, mice, printers and extra monitors each used their own specified port, of which there was usually only one of each. This created all sorts of headaches for users and really limited the way people were able to use their machines. If you wanted to run multiple printers off one machine it would often involve using splitter/converter units or adding an expansion card to the PC itself.

The USB was designed with the goal of standardising the connectors on PCs and providing a more flexible platform for connecting devices, two way transfer of data and the ability to act as a power supply to devices. In 1994 a consortium of companies (Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC and Nortel) began the design process. The original USB 1.0 was introduced in January 1996, with the USB 1.1 becoming widely used in 1998.

USB Patent Wars

USB drives were invented in 1999. There was some controversy as to the initial patent and what it covered. M-Systems filed a US patent in April of 1999. The patent describes a product that has a flash memory drive connected to a computer by a USB cable. In September of the same year IBM filed a patent for a product that accurately describes a USB as we know it today. IBM and M-Systems pooled their resources to work towards a release of their product. Trek Technology and Netac Technology also patented USB drives but their patents were dated after the M-Systems patent. Trek and Netac have vigorously tried to protect their patents with little success. Most manufacturers of USBs hold no regard for their patents.

In 2000 both IBM and Trek released USB drives. Their capacities were 8MB (over five times the size of the ¼ inch floppy disks) and their versatility and ruggedness made them a strong competitor for other storage solutions.

Once the USB 2.0 was released in the early 2000’s, USB devices really came into their own. USB 2.0 ran at over 40 times the data rate of USB 1.1, allowing new and previously unattainable applications. USB flash drives had existed in USB 1.1 but once USB 2.0 became main-stream, flash drive use became the easiest option for the regular transfer of large files. To be able to copy data onto a portable drive and take it with you completely changed the landscape of sharing data.

In 2010 USB 3.0 devices launched, cutting down on power consumption and pushing the USBs data transfer rate up to 4 G/bits a second making USB drives a more viable solution than ever. Drive capacity has skyrocketed to 1TB of data and recently the USB Promoter Group has announced a finalised design for the USB Type-C plug, designed to replace all current USB connectors and make USB devices and drives even more comprehensive.

Learn more about FATS Digital’s USB products and services, here.