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USB coming of age?

Two pavilions at fall Comdex will feature connection technologies, Universal Serial Bus and infrared, that have failed to find widespread use.

Comdex is the place, according to organizers, "where the future of the IT industry unfolds." But when it comes to connecting new consumer peripherals to computers, this fall's event seems geared to hurrying up a future that has been slow in coming.

Two pavilions at Comdex Fall '97 will feature connection technologies--Universal Serial Bus and infrared--that have failed to find their way into widespread use years after they were introduced.

Most desktop personal computers and notebooks already ship with a USB port, especially higher-end machines. But thus far the peripherals they connect with are lagging behind.

"This was really a cart-and-horse issue," said Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle. "PC companies didn't want to include the port until there were peripherals, and Microsoft didn't want to write the driver [supporting software] into Windows until there were ports. Everyone was waiting for someone else to take the next step."

Now that USB ports are prevalent and Microsoft has written USB support into Windows 98, the technology is poised to take off, said Enderle. And makers of peripherals including printers, cameras, scanners, and videoconferencing tools are getting ready to show off their USB-ready wares in Las Vegas.

USB is a one-size-fits-all connection, expected to eventually replace both parallel and serial ports and increase data transfer speed to 12mbps. For the last ten years or so, all PCs have had serial and parallel connections, or "ports." The serial port is used, for example, to connect external modems to the PC, while the parallel port is typically used for devices such as printers.

USB technology has the advantage of being "plug-and-play," eliminating the need for cards, reconfiguration, and rebooting when connecting a device such as a printer or scanner. Configuring hardware has always plagued PC users. USB, if implemented properly, can mitigate these problems.

Products at the USB pavillion will include videoconferencing hardware from Intel, Kodak, VLSI Vision, and Xirlink. Other products with USB connectivity will include phones, modems, and scanners.

Another Comdex pavilion will be devoted to the wireless infrared connection technology commonly known as IrDA, after the consortium that promotes it.

Like USB, IrDA ports are already common, especially on notebook computers and handheld computing devices. They're less often part of peripherals. The reason, according to Enderle, is price.

"IrDA won't become prevalent until it becomes cost-competitive," he said. "We're really a long way away from that."

IrDA's costliness will probably prevent it from competing significantly with USB, said Enderle, which overlaps with infrared connection on many devices.

But John LaRoche, executive director of the IRDA consortium, said that infrared connectivity is becoming more widespread, particularly in the digital photography arena and overseas. "The Japanese have been the most aggressive implementers," he said.