Keyboards, printers, joysticks – sure. But toy missile launchers, disco balls and thumb drives that look like thumbs?
When a small team of Intel engineers developed the Universal Serial Bus with a half-dozen other companies in 1994, the objective was to create a low-cost plug-and-play interface to connect computers to peripheral devices. In the early days USB products were sold primarily at computer and office supply stores. Today, they're as universal as the serial bus itself.
That's how fast and broadly USB-equipped devices have taken off – to the point where today over 10 billion exist in the world, according to market research firm In-Stat. No one is more surprised by the explosion than Ajay Bhatt, the Intel computer architect who co-invented the standard.
"Originally when we did this it was to replace connectors for simple stuff like scanners, keyboards and mice," Bhatt said. "We didn't know it would be around this long, this popular and lead to such a wide variety of products."
Bhatt said he uses his own technology every day, but keeps to the more mundane computer peripherals and consumer electronics. So simple are his needs that the man doesn't even own a USB missile launcher complete with foam missiles to attack a neighboring cubical at his Hillsboro, Ore. workplace. And as for those popular beverage warmers, Bhatt literally doesn't make the connection.
"Don't have one. I'd rather get fresh coffee," he said.
It's not as if Bhatt hasn't had opportunities to get his hands on one. Mug warmers are among the countless USB products out there.
Trade Shows a USB Bonanza
Industry trade shows are also a hotbed for USB goods be they relevant or not. But for every USB record turntable, USB heated slippers and USB desk aquarium, there are billions of more practical accessories being happily and shamelessly snatched off exhibitor booth shelves. This common trade show practice might not bring in new business for the gift-giving exhibitor, but it does keep such companies as Robertson Marketing in business and on the forefront of trends.
"There are fads out there like the USB cup warmer, rocket launchers, a dog that moves, and they're all cute conversation starters," said Tom Robertson, president of the Virginia-based promotional merchandise distributor. "But in business settings, more professional and usable items like flash drives, hubs and mice are more widely purchased – things you can take on the go and are more widely used."
By far, USB flash drives make up the bulk of Robertson's trade show tchotchke business. What finds this market segment trumping all its USB cousins is its versatile functionality and innovative shapes and designs.
USB drives can cater to a specific event or purpose, such as resembling an army dog tag for a military-themed marketing campaign. Novelty flash drives handed out at industry shows have taken the shape of a chicken leg (poultry), syringe (nursing), golf ball (sporting goods), designer purse (fashion) and sushi (restaurant). Given out at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons Annual Meeting was, of course, a thumb drive that looks like a human thumb.
The cool factor is important in the world of promotional flash drives, but when it comes to actual use it's all about capacity. A 1-gigabyte flash drive is somewhat obsolete nowadays; the majority of orders are for sticks between 2Gb and 4Gb, according to Robertson.
After flash drives, the most popular USB promotional items are desktop-driven products such as hubs, mice and digital photo frames, according to Alex Symms, Southeast regional sales manager for KTI Promo, a Houston-based supplier of high-tech promotional items. Next popular is the music category led by USB mini-speakers and travel speakers, followed by USB chargers for mobile devices, iPods and cell phones. Somehow the USB hamster wheel didn't make the list of best-sellers, but you've got to love its slogan: "The faster you type the faster he runs!"
Staying on the Bus
So what does the future hold? As consumers demand newfangled products that capitalize on established USB technology in all its wired and unwired flavors, the advent of SuperSpeed USB, or USB 3.0, seems to be the talk of the promotional merchandise industry.
"The foundation of USB technology was version 1.0, then on to 2.0, and now there's a mass push to USB 3.0," said Robertson about the latest version that is 10 times faster than USB 2.0. "This gives you the ability to download entire HD movies or entire hard drives of information in a very short amount of time."
"Who wouldn't like to be able to transfer a 25GB HD movie from a portable USB device to a PC in just 70 seconds with USB 3.0 versus the 14 minutes it takes today using USB 2.0?" USB Implementers Forum President Jeff Ravencraft asked, rhetorically.
"About 60 percent of our USB business is flash drives, and as 3.0 comes to the forefront, you could actually see this percentage increase as more peripherals and hardware take advantage of this blazing difference in the speed of read/write," Robertson said. "It's getting a lot of buzz."
Whether the world needs an even faster USB hamster wheel remains to be seen. (Not to fear, animal lovers -- it's a mechanical rodent.) But as the broadened range of USB speeds spawns new and improved products, be they uncanny or conventional their origins date back to when detaching a Windows 95-compatible keyboard from a PC, replacing it with another device, then plugging it back in without the need to reboot the PC made news at Comdex.
"It's amazing to have been part of a technology that has shipped billions of devices – most of them not too wacky, but actually very useful and hard to live without today," said Steve Whalley, USB co-inventor and Intel technology initiatives manager. "While we predicted the usual suspects such as keyboards, mice, printers, scanners and other traditional PC peripherals moving to USB, I'm glad to see how the world innovated around a common interface to build a plethora of new usages and novel inventions, wacky or otherwise."