Until recently, hooking up printers and scanners to your PC was a major hassle. There were conflicts to work out, driver files to download, and even if you did everything right, you still had to reboot the system to get the peripheral to work.
Newer Windows-based and Macintosh computers equipped with Universal Serial Bus (USB) take the fuss and muss out of the installation process by automatically configuring your system for the peripheral once it's physically hooked up to the USB port. USB also allows you to "hot swap" peripherals--that is, to plug a device into a USB port and use it without rebooting. Because USB connections also supply power, you can daisy-chain peripherals (up to 127 devices at a time) with a hub hooked up to a single USB port.
According to David Murray, one of the creators of the new standard, USB-equipped PCs represent a desire by manufacturers to make their machines more user-friendly. "PC manufacturers want to make the machine an everyday appliance," says Murray. "Using peripherals should be as easy as buying a microwave oven, plugging it in and turning it on."
PCs equipped with USB came out in late 1996; according to Murray, 80 million of these machines have been sold in the past two years. However, only a few dozen manufacturers now produce USB peripherals.
USB peripherals are supported by both Windows 98 and the iMac, a good sign that the new standard is here to stay.