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2 billion shipments and counting: Cypress has been making USB universal since 1996 | Cypress Semiconductor

2 billion shipments and counting: Cypress has been making USB universal since 1996

A billion of anything is a big number… and we’ve doubled that. We’re proud that we surpassed the 2 billion milestones in our USB product line recently (we hit 1B back in 2008). Cypress has always been a key market driver of USB since the standard’s very first days, has a legacy of many industry firsts in this space and has long been the market leader for USB solutions. So, we thought we’d take some time to look back — and ahead — at one of the most important standards in our industry USB was developed in 1996 with the goal of untangling the mess of incompatible PC peripheral cables. The standard has not just stood the test of time but has set the pace for how devices can interact with each other. USB has ridden the wave of each new generation of device and consumer trend, consistently delivering the speed, performance and innovation required to make products easier to use together.

We sat down with Mark Fu, our resident USB expert, to chat about the history of USB and where the market is going.

Can you give us a brief history of how USB came to be and has evolved since?

“There was no single way to connect things and the industry realized everyone would be better served by a common method, a universal connector.”

Back in the mid-1990s we were still in the early days of the PC era, and in some ways, there were no clear rules of the road. As a new industry, most of the early manufacturers had proprietary ways of doing things, like how to connect peripherals to a PC. Over time several standards emerged – such as VGA for display, parallel ports for printers, serial ports or PS/2 for the keyboard and mouse, RJ45 for Ethernet – but there was no single way to connect everything. The industry soon realized everyone would be better served by a common method, a universal connector. The first implementations of the initial USB standard were designed mainly for the keyboard and mouse. Apple deserves a lot of credit for getting the connection going when it standardized USB with the iMac because after that, the rest of the PC industry quickly followed. 

The main driver was the need for a standard interface that everyone could design to; USB did exactly that, but also significantly increased the speed of connectivity. USB 1.1 could operate at a data transfer rate of 12 megabits per second (Mbit/s), which doesn’t sound like much now, but it was 100 times faster than the serial port at the time.

Since then, each major USB enhancement has been in parallel with a big product trend and the need for more products to be connected. Data transfer speed was the most pressing requirement, so each iteration of the USB standard increased performance to keep pace with new types of products.

For example, USB 2.0 upped the standard to 480Mbit/s, which was 40 times faster than USB 1.1. This was driven largely by the emergence of bigger and better storage and video devices. 

The widespread adoption of mobile phones changed the game again and led to USB 3.0 being certified in 2008. We’d reached a new data transfer speed level of 5Gbit/s, another 20x leap over the previous generation. The first USB 3.0 products started hitting the market around 2010, which was really the beginning of the smartphone era.

As a point of reference, by 2008 there were an estimated 6 billion USB ports in the market, and in 2009 Cypress shipped its 1 billionth USB solution.

So, the progression of USB has really been defined by the need for speed?

Yes, for the most part. Today we know all about how the explosion of data was brought on by the increase in multimedia applications fueled by the internet. This really pushed bandwidth requirements on all levels. USB kept pace with the need for speed, with a top speed of 10Gbit/s in the USB 3.1 Gen 2 spec and then doubling it again to 20Gbit/s by USB 3.2 last year. Now we are looking at yet another performance upgrade to be released in the near future.

But while speed has always been a big part of the USB roadmap, we are now seeing other benefits becoming equally important like the improved user experience that USB Type-C™ enables. By reducing the number of incompatible interfaces and cables needed we are having a positive impact environmentally and on all our desks (who likes messy cables?!). 

So, what else is important besides speed?

Power delivery — i.e., charging and powering your devices — is a big one. USB was always designed to carry power, but there’s been real progress in how much power can be transmitted. We’ve seen that increase from 7.5 watts to 100 watts in the latest specs. Think about that — that’s up to 20 volts and 5 amperes of power, which is enough to power almost any kind of device in your home, except a few big appliances. With the emergence of the connected home and the IoT, not to mention more functionality on our cars, being able to deliver enough reliable power to devices is important, and USB again consolidates this into a single interface, providing mobile power in places where it might not have been readily available before.

Another opportunity to untangle the mess of cables is by supporting more signal types, and USB is making advancements there too. Now, with USB-C­­, we can support sending simultaneous signals and power streams, which means that you can connect to and power a native DisplayPort, Thunderbolt or HDMI device. The USB-C spec even includes audio transmissions, so you can see how it’s becoming the single port for everything the user needs.

The other cool thing about USB-C is that it’s a reversible connector, which means you can plug it in any way you want. There is no upside down, or directional orientation — a true plug-and-play connector that just works.

How do you differentiate a solution that is based on a standard?

Supporting the latest standards is the baseline requirement, and it’s something everyone has to do. We build an extremely robust and flexible solution on top of that.

Programmability is a key part of the Cypress solution. Customers are looking for ways to differentiate their products, and our programmable approach allows them to develop product-specific features for every application. Plus, it’s an easy-to-use solution and Cypress provides an extensive range of development support tools and resources. This is a big advantage over buying a fixed-function, less configurable, off-the-shelf solution.

Cypress has what I would call a portfolio advantage, too. We supply USB solutions that suit many applications and industries. Think about USB power delivery needs, for example. There are power adaptors, power banks, car chargers, wall outlets, even a PC docking station can be a new power source — one size does not fit all. It really takes a one-stop-shop approach to address all USB power delivery needs. In addition, we can support a range of other USB solutions for video, storage, camera, automotive, etc., whereas a lot of other suppliers focus on only one specific area. We support USB-C and power deliver requirements. We have peripheral and hub controllers in USB full-speed, high-speed and super-speed. Our broad-based solution portfolio is a big differentiator for Cypress.

What’s next for USB?

Over the past two decades, USB has become the standard for connecting peripherals and for charging small devices. In the next decade, we see the USB-C connector with power delivery becoming the standard for a broader range of devices — including power tools, small home appliances and consumer electronics of all kinds. Anything with a built-in battery has the potential to be charged with USB-C, which means power adapters can be standardized and shared. That will go a long way to improving the user experience and reducing electronic waste.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more about Cypress’ USB Solutions, check out our product page! Have any questions on USB that you want answered? Check out our Developer Community or Tweet us at @CypressSemi.

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