Daily Illuminator

September 26, 2023: In Praise Of USBs

I was cleaning out a box of adapters and computer parts the other day, and I came across myriad USB cables from bygone eras. Curious, I plugged one unusual device in . . . and it worked. If I wanted an IDE-to-USB adapter to muck with any ancient hard drives, I now have a decent prospect.

It got me thinking how amazing the humble USB port is. The USB 1.1 specification that sparked off the widely adopted USB era came out in August 1998, so the technology is just over a quarter-century old. And it's remarkably robust; if I needed to use a decades-old USB keyboard, printer, or memory card, the same rectangular port that enabled the gear to work last millennium still works fine (or, at most, is an adapter away). Any such device almost certainly won't be fast, but it has better-than-average odds of the computer going, "Ahh, I haven't seen one of these since the Y2K era . . . but I still know what to do with it." Then the computer gets nostalgic. And you get nostalgic, and start digging around the office junk drawer for that Tamagotchi you last remembered seeing there a few years back. (And by "you," I 100% mean "me.")

The decades-old intercompatibility of USB triumphs over the earlier years of the computer era, where every new ecosystem seemed to proliferate a new wave of cables and devices that were quite probably not going to play well with your old stuff.

Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that USB has become a near-universal power specification, recharging and giving life to any number of gadgets and gizmos. This miracle stands in stark contrast to the other box of mystery power bricks and adapters I've accumulated over the years.

USB is not without its quirks; for example, the inability for any human to insert a standard rectangular USB cable in the correct orientation on the first try is basically a cliché at this point. But it's certainly refreshing to rediscover some bit of once-loved gear in my closet collection coming back to life with the insert of a humble plug.

-- Steven Marsh

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