- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2001

Aargh! I've spent the better part of a morning coiling and switching and moving … wires. First was the wire that links my Universal System Bus, or USB, "hub" to the computer; then the electrical power source to fire up the hub. Then came the wire that connects the mouse to the PC. Then the one for the color scanner. Then the ones for my two personal data assistants (Why two PDAs? Don't ask). Then the one for the Zip drive.
My head is spinning, and for obvious reasons: there's a whole lot of wiring going on. This is partly due to the way I use a computer, and in part due to the way personal computers are set up. Perhaps I need to mend my ways, but even more, it's important for computer manufacturers and designers, I think, to consider what people are using, and how and why.
Most of my time is spent working with and writing about computing technology. That's one reason why I have two PDA devices hooked up to the computer, and partly why I use a flatbed scanner along with the copier/printer/scanner/fax unit which "talks" to the PC via a parallel communications port. The flatbed relies on a USB port. A mouse is essential to modern-day computer, whether you're using Windows, the Macintosh operating system or even Linux. The Zip drive can store up to 250 MB on a single data cartridge, and sometimes the cartridges are better or faster than "burning" a CD, which I can do in the PC's CD-RW (for rewritable) drive. Equally, files can come to me via a Zip cartridge, so having the drive, in this case an external unit, remains a plus.
Now the PC I'm using has one USB port on the front, and another on the back. I connected the USB "hub" to the front of the computer; adding the external power supply lets me use all seven USB ports and pass along power to the devices. For example, the scanner gets its electrical power via its USB connection.
Are you still with me?
The USB port on the rear of the computer was taken up by my mouse connection, until I found a little changer that will connect the USB cable on my mouse to the PS/2 mouse port on the rear of the computer. The mouse works (thank heavens!) and I now have a "free" USB port for a device which must be directly connected to a port on the computer, such as a PC-friendly telephone or, as announced recently, a wireless LAN antenna using the 802.11b wireless standard.
The result: Twenty years after the introduction of the IBM PC with its own mass of wires and connections and DIP switches to be set, not to mention expansion cards and their cables and settings, we've only advanced just a hair. No more DIP switches bedevil me, but I've got enough wiring to network one side of the Pentagon, or so it seems.
Can PC makers offer users any hope? Well, in one sense they have, since USB devices are generally easier to "plug and play," that is, connect to a PC and operate, than their forebears were. The transfer speed on a standard USB device should be as much as 1.5 megabits-per-second; a forthcoming "USB 2.0" specification calls for devices running at up to 40 times that speed, according to the USB Implementers Forum Web site (www.usb.org).
The downside, according to many industry reports, is that USB 2.0 isn't ready for prime time, that manufacturers aren't shipping products for it (or computers that support it) and that Microsoft is dragging its feet on implementing USB 2.0 in the next version of Windows, which is called Windows XP and should hit stores on Oct. 25. Microsoft, for its part, announced at a USB conference in May that it is working to include the 2.0 standard in Windows XP.
The other "hope" is something called Bluetooth, a wireless connectivity standard that will cut the cords by placing small, low-power transmitters in various peripherals and let us type, mouse, print and whatever without wires. But here, too, the Bluetooth standard has received far more hype than substantive product releases, although this may change later this year.
For now, however, making a stand-alone PC into a more capable device could depend on your dexterity and ability to string wires together. USB makes it easier, for sure, but I'd love to have a robust Bluetooth implementation that lets me cut the cord, once and for all.
Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time, on www.adrenaline-radio.com.

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