How the USB-IF Protects Consumers and Drives Innovation as We Move Toward a Single Port for Audio, Video, Data, and Power

USB Implementers Forum Transforms Connectors and Protects Consumers

TL; DR: Formed in 1995 by companies that developed USB cables, connectors, and communications protocols, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) sets the standards that govern the ubiquitous connections. With USB Type-C technology proving to be a promising and inclusive solution for transmitting data, power, audio, and video, the USB-IF seeks to improve product design and functionality while also protecting consumers and devices from non-compliant accessories.

We all have them — that drawer or storage tub full of miscellaneous USB, HDMI, FireWire, and auxiliary cables. The emergence of USB Type-C cables and connections, however, could soon see that obnoxious drawer disappear.

USB-C connections combine — and outperform — the data transmission and power capabilities of the other cables, making it an impressive option for transferring audio, video, data, and power to all sorts of electronics.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Type-C: The connectors are reversible, meaning no more flipping the cable around and trying to figure out which way is right-side up or making sure you’re holding onto the right end of the cable.

As the adoption of USB Type-C creeps into consumer electronics, such as laptops, phones, and external hard drives, the non-profit USB Implementers Forum sets the guidelines that drive product innovations, performance, and longevity.

Evolution of USB Technology and How Type-C Changes the Game

USB history can generally be broken into versions and types. Versions are described with numbers and refer to speed and functionality, while types are the letters that signify the physical shape and wiring of ports and connectors.

Type-A, or USB-A, is the rectangular plug that most consumers associate with USB and attach to their computers. USB-B, or Type-B, is usually the fitting connected to devices such as a printer, camera, external hard drive, or phone. Although USB-A is standard and recognizable across all devices, USB-B connections can vary from standard to micro.

Version 1.1, released in 1998, had a top speed of 12Mbps. USB 2.0 boosted that to 480Mbps in 2000, and 2008’s USB 3.0 maxed out at 5Gbps and up to 5 volts and 1.8 amps of power.

Released in 2013, USB 3.1 doubles the speed to 10Gbps and includes three levels of power distribution profiles that top out at 5 amps at either 12 or 20 volts.

Images of types of USB cables

USB Type-C cables (left) look to be a more comprehensive solution than USB-B (middle) and USB-A (right).

Developed at roughly the same time as the USB 3.1 specification, USB Type-C was announced in August 2014 and featured a small, reversible plug that connects bidirectionally to peripheral devices. Laptops from both Apple and Google have adopted USB-C ports for charging and connecting accessories, and Intel announced that the Thunderbolt 3 — once thought worthy of replacing the USB altogether — will use the same port and connection types.

The move to Type-C connections also means eventually abandoning proprietary power adapters in favor of one solution that works for all devices. The European Union is exploring a universal charging standard that would significantly cut down on waste.

Authentication Standards Defend Against Faulty Chargers and Malware

In mid-2016, the USB-IF announced cryptographic-based authentication standards for USB-C chargers and devices. Host systems will identify and verify the authenticity of cables or chargers using 128-bit encryption before power or data can be transferred.

The specification protects host devices against non-compliant or non-certified accessories that can harm the device’s performance or introduce malware.

“USB-IF understands consumers want to carry less equipment without sacrificing battery life or flexibility,” USB-IF President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Ravencraft said in a press release. “The Certified USB Charger Program will make it easier to share chargers across the compliant USB Type-C landscape, whether consumers are at home, in the office, or anywhere in between.”

Illustration of certified USB charger

Manufacturers are encouraged to use a new USB-IF logo to show their chargers are compliant and certified.

Supporting global efforts to reduce waste and increase the usability of power cords with a variety of devices, USB-IF collaborated with the International Electrotechnical Commission to promote these standards.

“USB-IF is unwavering in our mission to solidify USB Type-C as the single cable of the future,” Jeff said in another press release. “USB Type-C authentication is an important contribution to enable a thriving ecosystem of compliant, interoperable products.”

Establishing Digital Audio Standards Improves Product Design

With the USB Audio Device Class 3.0 specification (click to download), USB-IF standardized audio delivery through Type-C connections. The decision, which covers headsets, mobile devices, docking stations, gaming setups, and virtual reality devices, encourages hardware manufacturers to continue removing the 3.5mm audio jacks in favor of the smaller, 2.6mm-tall USB-C.

That means devices can be up to a millimeter thinner and have fewer connectors, which will “open the door for innovation in countless ways,” according to the USB-IF press release — chief among the improvements would likely be more waterproof or water-resistant devices. The specification also introduces the ability to reduce power consumption and supports new features like hotword detection — the listening mode that activates technology like Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo.

“USB is the simplest and most pervasive connector available today, making USB Type-C the logical choice for the future of digital audio,” Jeff said in the release, adding USB-IF’s specification would help companies reduce time-to-market.

USB-IF Advocates for Advancement and Adoption of Compliant USB Tech

As a whole, USB-IF specifications determine the targets for the interfaces and mechanisms behind product design.

The non-profit USB-IF, a collaboration of the companies responsible for creating USB connections, still counts among their 920-plus member companies Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, and Intel.

Individual developers can use USB-IF’s forums and access their documentation for free, but only those employed by a member company or registered individually can join one of the working groups focused on devices, compliance, and marketing.

Join the USB Implementers Forum

As members, developers can participate in conferences, marketing programs, and quarterly compliance workshops where they can test equipment and become certified. Compliant devices can then be included in USB-IF’s product directory and use USB-IF’s certified logos.

Products can be tested for compliance either by going through an independent testing lab or by participating in a compliance workshop. The members-only events promote USB development, validate compliance, and foster communication among USB manufacturers.

Alexandra Leslie

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