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USB, Java take center stage at Comdex

Among the PC-centric wares at Comdex are technologies that will be moving into or are currently part of the Unix market -- here are some highlights

By James Niccolai, Niall McKay, Kristi Essick

December  1996
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Comdex provided a stage for vendors to present some of the first peripherals that work with the Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology, but industry support for the high-speed interface is not entirely problem-free.

Companies unveiling peripheral devices that are compatible with the USB specification include Acer Peripherals Inc., Hyundai Electronics America Inc., Key Tronic Corp., Philips Consumer Electronics Co. and Samsung Electronics America Inc. (See related story, "Early USB products debut").

But even though a number of leading systems manufacturers, including Digital Equipment Corp., IBM, and Toshiba Corp., have embedded USB capability in their PCs, peripheral makers have been slower to adopt the technology.

"Microsoft hasn't released a common software driver yet, and that's holding [peripheral] manufacturers up a bit," says Kevin Hause, a personal-systems research analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, MA. "It's sort of a chicken-and-egg situation. USB is starting to appear on some higher-end systems, but until it's more common, peripheral makers won't stick their necks out."

Microsoft Corp. will embed the driver software, which it is developing with Intel, in the next version of Windows NT, due out in late 1997, and the forthcoming version of Windows 95, expected to be called Windows 97, due out in mid-1997, says Michael Glass, a senior software design engineer for the Microsoft driver.

"Some people have said we've been dragging our feet on this, but its really a complex business," Glass says. "The peripheral devices we've been using for tests have only been available for a few months, and they're changing all the time."

PCs supporting the USB-enabled operating systems are expected to ship in mass volume in mid-1997, Glass says.

The specs
The USB specification is designed to configure multiple devices automatically when they are attached to a computer, enabling up to 127 devices to be "daisy chained" to a single computer port via a hub, without the need to reconfigure the system. It also will allow devices to be detached and attached without the need to reboot the system each time.

Intel Corp. initiated the first USB specifications a year ago November. OEM manufacturers were provided in October with specifications for the Microsoft software that will allow them to develop peripherals that will "talk to our driver," Glass says.

There are other reasons for the lag time between the development of USB PCs and USB peripherals. Switching to USB involves a transition period where peripheral devices will have to support both USB and traditional connections, Hause says.

"Its been hard for peripheral makers because they have this period where they need to provide USB as well as the old-type serial and parallel connections," says Donald Liedberg, sales director for Cable Systems International, a maker of USB connection cables. "They have to lay out extra money for what is really no increase in returns."

In the case of a small device, such as a mouse, the relative increase in the cost of installing USB functionality is much greater than with a large device, such as a monitor, Glass says.

Also, at least two specifications for USB chip designs have emerged in the past year. The Universal Host Controller Interface, proposed by Intel last year, has been challenged by the Open Host Controller Interface, supported by Compaq Computer Corp., Cable Systems International, and others.

Glass says the two standards meant it took longer for Microsoft to develop its software driver, since it has been designed to be compatible with both.

However, James Pappas, chairman of the Intel-led USB Implementers Forum, played down the differences. "Peripheral manufacturers don't care which standard they use," he says. "In then end, it won't make a difference."

This year's display, and the support of almost 300 systems and peripherals manufacturers for the USB Implementers Forum, means that manufacturing momentum is gathering behind the technology, according to Pappas.

"Next year you won't even see a USB booth at Comdex," Pappas says. "All machines will be USB-compatible; it's a done deal." --James Niccolai, IDG News Service, Boston Bureau


Early USB products debut

Comdex played host to some of the first products supporting the high-speed Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology, which offers plug-and-play capabilities and the ability to attach up to 127 devices. USB's four-wire serial cable enables bidirectional communications at 12 megabits per second, compared with the 115 kilobytes per second of a standard serial port, allowing the transfer of complex, multimedia data. In addition, users do not need to reboot the computer each time a peripheral is added or unplugged.

Among those unveiling products were:

--James Niccolai, IDG News Service, Boston Bureau

Motorola previews NC reference design

Motorola Inc. demonstrated WeBRef, the company's PowerPC-based Internet appliance at Comdex. WeBRef is Motorola's reference design for forthcoming products such as network computers, Internet/intranet appliances, and Internet telephones.

WeBRef will be used by Motorola's internal product divisions and also rolled out to customers of its semiconductor division, according to Gary Sawyer, Motorola's PowerPC market development manager.

The product will feature an MPC 860 processor, a 28.8K bits-per-second modem, and four megabytes of DRAM, as well as a Type 3 PC Card slot. The product comes with an optional audio-visual card that features a VGA controller, an audio codec, and audio inputs/outputs.

Currently, WeBRef is shipping with Microware Systems Corp.'s OS-9, a thin-client operating system and applications suite. OS-9 provides e-mail, scheduling, Internet browsing, and a personal information manager. However, WeBRef might also comply with Oracle Corp.'s Network Computer specification in the next few months, according to Sawyer. WeBRef is priced at approximately $300 and is available to OEMs now.--Niall McKay IDG News Service, London Bureau

Java and Internet key to MacOS

Acknowledging that Microsoft's Windows dominates the operating system arena, Apple Computer Inc. has its sights set on the newest standards, such as Java and the Internet. The next version of the MacOS -- formerly known as Copland -- will appear in a string of releases starting in January, says Vito Salvaggio, product line manager of MacOS releases. Apple plans to issue upgrades every six months to build on existing technologies rather than starting from scratch.

The first release will be MacOS 7.6. A MacOS release 8 is still in the works, and its availability will be announced in January. Currently, the runtime version of Java for the Macintosh is available for downloading as an add-on to the MacOS, and it is slated to be available on CD in January, Salvaggio says. This version enables users to run Java applets within the operating system without using a browser.

"We want to make Java applets run no matter what on the MacOS, without the need for a browser," Salvaggio says. "Java runtime for Macintosh will be embedded in the MacOS." Runtime Java environments are already available for Windows and Unix.

Currently, Apple is working with Netscape to integrate Navigator into the MacOS desktop via its OpenDoc technology, codeveloped with IBM. In addition, its CyberDog technology allows users to open Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) pages within documents that support OpenDoc.

Most important, says Salvaggio, "Copland isn't dead." Apple still has engineers working to deliver features to the MacOS that will surprise, and hopefully impress, the user, he says.

--Kristi Essick, IDG News Service, San Francisco Bureau

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