As welcome as USB was at the time of its introduction in 1996, it has arguably now become such a part of the fabric of the technology landscape that we generally fail to get very excited about it - unless someone offers you a silver plated Victorinox Swiss Army knife flash drive perhaps.
I guess most people feel fairly ambivalent about it as a standard – it’s good, with occasional niggles. It’s rarely a headline maker. Writing on IBM’s developerWorks, freelance author Peter Seebach says that, “Connectors are probably the weakest point of the USB spec since they are harder to use than they should be. Some people complain about USB cables coming unplugged under slight tension. A cable with a clear orientation that a user could check by feel would have been a wonderful, user-centered-design idea.”
So, what on earth am I on about if I normally blog on software application development and the manifold pleasures of a good code-related subject? Well, Symbian’s Jezar Wakefield who is a senior software engineer by trade has been mailing me to say that the company is trying to tell us that it is, “turning USB technology on its head,” and wants it to feature on the current developer radar scope.
USB is not normally something to get excited about. However Symbian OS 9.5 adds USB Host Support – potentially, says the company, opening up some fascinating connectivity options. Products such as the Behringer BCR2000 add 24 knobs with illuminated surrounds that developers can target for a range of functions. Quite why you would want to attach a 24-knob console to a mobile phone for any application is beyond me. OK, maybe this is a bad example and there are some useful USB extensions that developers might be interested in – you tell me.
But hang on, why is Symbian only talking about this now? Hasn’t Windows CE supported USB Host for around a decade already? Also, it’s a fair argument surely to suggest that this is not a overly software-focused issue anyway, but rather more a question of the cost of the hardware and the power consumption questions it will throw up.
In response to my points Symbian’s Wakefield said, “It was once true that mobile USB Hosting was irrelevant, because for mass-market Symbian phones there was nothing worth connecting to. But these new application-independent controllers offer real possibilities - such as kids mixing the content of their mobile music players, or correspondents editing and sending breaking news footage with Griffin's pocket-sized jog-wheel. People used to tell me that building a camera into a phone was ridiculous and unworkable. Now it's considered normal. It's when developers stop thinking of the device as a telephone that the innovation really begins. So it's not about the cable - it's about what's at either end of it.”
Looking for an external opinion as I often try to do, I also contacted Gartner on this issue and received the following thoughts from analyst Joe Unsworth, “Technologies such as USB flash drives are commodity products that are desperate for greater functionality in an attempt to generate additional value. If Symbian’s technology is simple, intuitive and useful for mainstream users then it does have an opportunity to gain traction through the USB drive vehicle. USB drive vendors are constantly exploring new technologies and innovation to differentiate their products in a fiercely competitive market, but of course, the Symbian technology must also be relatively inexpensive and marketed effectively to gain widespread adoption.”
This is not an issue that I’ve covered before so I’m not sure whether to suggest that a new breed of USB-aware applications is about to flourish. Replies and opinions on a stamped addressed blog reply will be read with great interest.