There's a new computer acronym you're going to start hearing a lot about: USB. It stands for universal serial bus, which is a powerful, new way of connecting peripheral devices to PCs.
Here's the scoop: Until now, connecting printers and other gizmos to PCs meant inserting one or more specialized adaptor cards into the motherboard of the computer. These cards essentially move information back and forth between the PC's central processor and a peripheral device. But in most PCs, there's room for only a handful of such cards, which limits the number of devices you can use at any one time. What's more, switching devices requires a fair amount of fiddling with software settings--even restarting the computer.
With USB, a single PC can connect to as many as 127 different devices at once, all of them available for you to use at the same time. Instead of add-in boards, you just plug a USB-compatible device into the single USB port on the back of your PC. Then one after the other, each device plugs into the USB plug in front of it, in what's called a daisy chain. In theory, there's no software modification required.
USB ports have been built into new PCs for months, but you may have only heard about them recently, due to two important developments. For one, Microsoft began shipping its Windows 98 operating system, which is USB-ready. Equally important, USB-compatible peripherals are just starting to show up in stores.
These peripherals run the gamut from laser and inkjet printers to digital cameras, modems, speakers and telephone-related devices. Digital Persona has come out with U.are.U, a USB-compatible device that recognizes people's fingerprints as a way of securing computers against unauthorized use. And Butterfly Communications has developed Monarch Wireless PBX, a wireless private telephone switch to plug in to USB-equipped PCs--designed for small businesses that depend on more than one outgoing phone line. USB was created for moving rich multimedia data, too, which means even more compelling videoconferencing experiences.
Meanwhile, Apple Computer is making USB news with its new iMac computer. By accommodating USB, Apple was able to lower the cost of its hardware and allow its customers to use many peripherals designed for the IBM-compatible PC market. Apple is expected to integrate USB ports into future models as well.
So what does this new technology cost? USB-ready peripherals aren't expected to cost significantly more than previous models, especially as the technology becomes ubiquitous. Market research firm Dataquest Corp. predicts the number of USB-compatible PCs will skyrocket to more than 151.8 million shipped in 2001--a tidy 100 percent of all machines expected to be produced that year.
John W. Verity is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered the computer industry for 21 years. Send your computer questions to John at email@example.com