The USB — which turns 20 years old on Sunday — is now used in more than 10 billion devices worldwide.
But the man who invented the technology hasn’t made a single cent from it — and he’s OK with it.
“I don’t do these things for money,” Ajay Bhatt, Intel’s Chief Systems Technologist, who’s largely responsible for inventing the USB technology, told Business Insider. “I did this to bring about change, and it’s not very often that somebody gets a chance to bring about this big a change.”
In fact, the USB technology didn’t make money for anyone. It’s because Intel, who owns all patents to the technology as the first backer of Bhatt’s USB idea, decided to make it open and royalty free from the beginning.
And Intel had every right to do so, Bhatt believes.
The USB is now considered the de facto standard for connecting different devices, but it was met with a lukewarm response when Bhatt first pitched the idea to tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, in the early ’90s.
One connector to rule them all
It was a smart idea, basically creating a single connector that bypassed the need for a separate floppy disk or driver to install each application. But companies had an inherent fear of breaking the existing compatibility functions, Bhatt said, and only Intel — the company he was working for at the time — was bold enough to make the investment in his idea.
“As an engineer, I’ve been handsomely rewarded by the company,” Bhatt added. “And I couldn’t do this kind of work anywhere else. I have nothing to complain.”
Although Intel first backed the idea and began to build support for it into its chips, it was Apple that first shipped a USB compatible product for end users — the iMac G3 in August 1998. Soon, Microsoft followed suit when it provided USB support for Windows 98’s second edition, and the rest is history.
Bhatt may have missed out on a chance to make hundreds of millions of dollars on this, but he believes his contribution to the overall computer industry is what makes up for it. The basic premise was to make the PC easier for regular users, and expand the overall PC market, and the USB certainly helped the cause.
“If computers are seen to be easy, then we’ll sell more computers, and as part of that, we’ll sell more chips. It’s a much bigger picture that Intel saw,” Bhatt said. “As the pie gets bigger, we get a piece of the pie, and we’re happy with it.”
The next frontier
So is there ever going to be another technology that becomes as ubiquitous as the USB? Bhatt thinks he found one: the stylus.
Bhatt is currently working with 35 companies to create a standard for stylus pens, so they could all work under one universal technology. That means an Apple stylus pen could be used in a Microsoft Surface, and vice versa, if his vision is realised.
“We are defining a standard to make the stylus more ubiquitous, more responsive, and address the entire handwriting experience,” Bhatt said. “It’s the next frontier.”
Whether all the competing companies agree on the need for a common stylus is another matter.
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