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USB 3 test spec to be in Apple's hands by June


A new USB standard that would bump data throughput to 5Gbps is slated to arrive as a test specification in June, with a possible final release ready for Apple adoption by next year.

Agilent Technologies has announced at a recent Tokyo seminar that Test Specification 1.0 of the new USB standard, known as USB 3.0, will be released to manufacturers by the end of June.

After the release, compatibility tests for transmitting and receiving circuits will begin, and the USB Implementers Forum Inc. (USB-IF) will hold a compliance workshop at the end of this year to make the final tweaks.

"USB 3.0-compatible end products certified by USB-IF are expected to debut in 2010," the Nikkei-owned Asian tech news site Tech-On reported. USB-IF will also host a meeting for USB 3.0 developers late next month.

According to the USB-IF website, the new standard will be ten times faster than the current Hi-Speed USB standard (USB 2.0). At the same time it's also more power-efficient, leading to lower active and idle power requirements. Like its predecessor, USB 3.0 is backwards compatible with USB 2.0 devices.

"SuperSpeed USB is the next advancement in ubiquitous technology," said USB-IF president and chairman Jeff Ravencraft last November. "Today's consumers are using rich media and large digital files that need to be easily and quickly transferred from PCs to devices and vice versa."

Apple is absent from the USB 3.0 Promoter Group of Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, ST-NXP Wireless and Texas Instruments. However, the company has frequently been among the first to adopt new technologies, such as its use of Mini DisplayPort, EFI, 802.11n and wireless networking in general, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, and even USB itself.

Apple and USB

A decade ago, PS/2 ports for keyboards and mice, RS-232 serial ports, and Centronics parallel interfaces were entrenched on generic PCs when Apple launched the original iMac in 1998 with only USB ports, many years ahead of the mainstream PC market. While some PCs had added USB jacks, they were often poorly supported in software and peripheral makers were extremely slow to offer any devices using USB.

Many PCs continued to use those "legacy ports" for a half decade or more after the iMac arrived, but Apple decisively upgraded to USB across the board on its Macs and jettisoned the Mac's former serial and ADB ports for the faster, more modern, and versatile USB standard. That move may have created some short term pain for users, but resulted in major long term gains that not only resulted in standardization on the USB specification for the Mac platform, but also served as a catalyst to bring USB to a wider audience among generic PC users as well. For years, nearly all USB devices shipped in translucent plastics seeking to match Apple's iMacs.

"We are going to the new generation of IO," interim chief executive Steve Jobs said at the May 1998 introduction just a year and a half after his return to Apple. "Twelve megabit universal serial bus ports. We're leaving the old Apple IO behind."

USB vs Firewire

Ten years later, Apple removed FireWire from the streamlined MacBook Air and its entry level 13-inch MacBook, leading Jobs to respond to a complaining customer's e-mail with a single sentence: "Actually, all of the new HD camcorders of the past few years use USB 2." In the months since, Apple has rapidly upgraded the FireWire ports on its higher end Macs with the faster FireWire 800 specification, which is backwardly compatible with existing FireWire 400 devices.

However, until this last year Apple's move to FireWire 800 had been incrementally, glacially slow, with the faster ports first appearing only on higher end Macs as a differentiating feature back in 2003, and many models since sporting both FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 ports. After its decisive move to the original USB 1.0 specification in 1998, Apple was also slower to move to USB 2.0 than the industry in general, with the first USB 2.0 ports only showing up in mid 2003. In part, this may have reflected the tension between Apple and Intel over the two specifications.

Apple had been working to promote FireWire in the hopes of gaining licensing fees from it, as the company had invented the standard prior to handing it over to the IEEE standards body. USB 1.0 had been developed by Intel to serve more humble uses. USB lacks the interface intelligence to perform as well as FireWire (USB relies on the host computer's CPU to handle much of the work) or to serve as a networking interface, or to act as an intelligent peripheral (preventing it from supporting Apple's Target Disk Mode).

In response to Apple's attempt to earn licensing fees from FireWire, Intel released USB 2.0, which promised theoretical speeds faster than FireWire 400, even though the specification could not actually perform nearly as fast. USB 2.0 was also cheaper to implement, and PC economies of scale rapidly made it a ubiquitous standard. In 2003 Apple saw the writing on the wall and began adding the new USB 2.0 ports to its Macs, PowerBooks, and the new iPod. The iPod helped hasten Apple's move to USB, as the device needed to support USB 2.0 to sell to a wider audience of PC users, few of whom had functional FireWire ports on their computers.

Within a couple years, the added expense of FireWire hardware resulted in Apple moving the iPods from dual support for USB 2.0 and FireWire to support for USB 2.0 only. On desktop and notebook computers, the FireWire continues to offer enough additional features to warrant the additional costs of supplying both interfaces. The new USB 3.0 specification promises to outrun FireWire 800 in speed, but still lacks the unique features of FireWire necessary to support Target Mode, for example.

Because Apple now relies on Intel and NVIDIA to supply its controller chips, future Macs will undoubtedly move to USB 3.0 at the same time, or in advance of, the rest of the generic PC makers. Future iPod and iPhone models are also likely to quickly adopt the new standard once it is finalized, making mobile desktop sync even faster.

This may even serve as a differentiating factor, as many competing smartphones, including Google's Android platform and the My Phone system unveiled by Microsoft for Windows Mobile devices, are intending to move toward cloud sync over the relatively slow mobile networks for all data sync and backup; Apple continues to promote its iPods and iPhones as managed directly from a computer running iTunes over a much faster USB sync.