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An Open Letter to the USB

Kai Lovel
Kai Lovel
3 min read

Dear the USB on my office desk,

I thought I didn’t fit in.

And it’s not even the off-yellow exterior, or the daffy duck-shaped contours, or the unusually low 4 GB of storage size. It’s that, by design, you are meant to anger and annoy every one of your users.

I mean, not exactly, but you certainly put the “universal” in Universal Serial Bus when it comes to international infuriation.

Whether it be a storage device, charging cable or Bluetooth mouse dongle, there is always a lull before the storm when you reach for that rectangular connection. You know what is coming. You even try and look through the mysteriously placed two square holes on either side to try and decipher which side is up.

In my experience, a USB plug needs a bit of pressure to go in the port. It’s enough pressure to make me wary that I might break it if I’m putting it in the wrong way.

After reversing the plug, it becomes obvious that it does not fit at all. This observation allows me to flip it again and now apply more pressure with confidence.

If I have this 3-step dance every time I use a USB (2–3 times a week on average), calculations predict that I could spend upwards of 25 hours of my life fumbling.

The feeling of rejection is almost deniable when you feel that plastic-on-plastic action mocking your failure to complete such a “simple” task. But WHY? Why are you wasting so much of my life?

Well, the creator of the USB, the “godfather of gigabytes”, Ajay Bhatt, and his team from Intel spoke at length about why the ubiquitous technology has been so infuriating for so long. Even at the start of development, they knew that making the connector flippable would be a better user experience in the long run. But doing so would require twice the wiring and more circuitry, which would increase costs.

Typical.

Picture this; an unproven technology is being finalised in a secret laboratory found deep inside the French Alps. (Creative license?) The final silicon chips are being installed, the last parts of metal are being bent, and the team are ready to plug it into their proprietary port on the all-powerful IBM ThinkPad 701c from 1995.

Silence fills the lab as the USB cable head approaches the side of the machine. And shock, when it doesn’t go in. Oh wait — they just had to turn it around.

Were the likes of sleeve-less t-shirts or headphone jack-less phones also the brainchildren of such a team and laboratory?

It wouldn’t surprise me.

It comes back to the question — why do these companies choose to create in the first place?

These products are not the product of design or feature oversights. That would be somewhat permissible, but alas. These companies know that these wonderful, life-changing, revolutionary innovations are rife with deliberate choices to reduce costs to make sure that these ideas take off. And we now know that, too.

It’s fear. They fear that too many upfront costs will scare off investors and partnerships and deals and leads and more investors so they make the Minimum Viable Product — the beta test — the finished product.

When did we become a society that prioritised the safe approach, the cheap option, the profitable option over an amazing user experience every single time?

Back when fire was first being tamed, when the caves that housed us captivated us, and forests filled our landscapes, we created for a purpose. Sure, we didn’t have every modern technology at our disposal to carve out the perfect tool or home, but we had our intentions set on making a product for us. For an experience. For a good experience, always.

And 2019, when we do have those technologies at our disposal, we have every opportunity to make products that provide it’s users with a good experience, always.

The USB — now nearly 25 years old — is now used in more than 10 billion devices worldwide. But the man who invented the technology hasn’t made a single cent from it — and he’s OK with it.

“I don’t do these things for money,” says Ajay. “I did this to bring about change, and it’s not very often that somebody gets a chance to bring about this big a change.”

Sure. I mean, thanks to the USB, I can move files easier & quicker than ever, I don’t need dongles for every new device, and my extended version of Avengers: Infinity War has a good home.

And, with the likes of USB-C slowly creeping into the market, there is a flippable hope for the future…

But to me, right now, the only “big change” is the 3 seconds of thumb drive flipping fury that greets me every time I have to use one of the buggers.

Kai

Longs