A little more than a month ago in Amsterdam, Ajay Bhatt and his team won the European Award 2013, in the category ‘Non-European Countries’, for developing Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology. The award is presented to inventors who conceive products and/or services that advance society socially, economically and technologically. As we all know, USB is an industry standard today. It provides a simple way for users to connect devices (such as keyboard, mouse, printers, digital cameras, etc.) to computers. Being an Intel employee, this was a great opportunity for me to call Ajay up and ask him a few questions regarding his reaction to the award, his background and USB technology.
Q&A with Ajay Bhatt
Joanna: Ajay, first of all, I would like to congratulate you and your team for the European Inventor Award win this year regarding USB technology! How do you feel?
Ajay: Well, it’s quite exciting. This is a very prestigious award and it is given to very few people. For us to be named on the shortlist was honor enough, so winning an award for non-EU category was really thrilling. I had not imagined that we could win this.
Joanna: Before we delve into USB technology, maybe we should start from the beginning of all this and ask you what is your background?
Ajay: I am an electrical engineer, with a Master’s degree in electrical engineering. I’ve been in the computer industry for over 33 years and with Intel for 23 years.
Joanna: Will you continue working for Intel?
Ajay: <Laughs> That’s the idea. I am not going to go work for anyone else.
Joanna: How did you end up at Intel?
Ajay: When I got hired, Intel was getting into new business of building chips for high performance computer and servers. I used to work for a minicomputer company in Boston. I did a local interview and after that, Intel really wanted me, so that’s how I came to join the company. I basically joined Intel to build server chips, but instead I ended up in one of the first projects to design USB, which has become the most famous invention of mine.
Joanna: Since you developed USB technology, do you consider yourself as an inventor?
Ajay: I currently have 33 patents in different areas. I like to think of myself as an engineer who has a profound impact on the computer industry. From all the things I have done, I have shaped the PC that you see today. I’ve worked on the advanced graphics port (AGP), which enabled great 3D graphics on computers at the time. I am quite fortunate to work on technologies that had such a huge impact, which is an addition to the USB impact.
Joanna: Where did the idea of USB technology stem from?
Ajay: Basically, I was observing and getting annoyed at computers of how they were difficult to interface with. I saw at home that in order to hook a printer, it required several steps. I therefore thought that if I struggle with this computer, my wife, who is not a very technical person, must definitely be struggling with it as well. And I thought that every other person would also find using computers very difficult. Those observations started motivating me to think differently and to see what could be done with connecting such devices. You should just plug it in and it should just work. I considered that to be a very basic operation. So, that was basically the beginning of my quest to see and figure out what we can do in the PC interface.
Joanna: And what about your team? May you please clarify who the other winners of the award are?
Ajay: They are all Intel people. When I started thinking about USB, I was socializing my ideas and happened to collaborate with Sudershan Bala Cadambi. We proposed this project to Intel management and when we staffed the team, we ended up hiring Shaun Knolls from outside and brought in Shelagh Callahan, who already worked within Intel, to work with us. Jeff Charles Morris, who is another award winner, actually had a slightly different proposal than ours. However, in the end, our proposal was accepted by Intel management and he ended up joining us. And that’s how we formed the team.
Joanna: What was your role in the project?
Ajay: I was the chief architect. My role was to develop specification for this technology. I developed the vision, worked with Intel and the industry to get consensus on the vision and lead specification development for USB technology.
Joanna: How did Intel support you in this project?
Ajay: Without Intel, this could not have been done. First of all, they allowed us to kick off a team; they provided staffing. As a result, Intel built an organization around us so that the technology could be developed and then deployed in the market. They were our primary sponsors and backers. We were in a startup mode and Intel really gave us total support. In the end, when we went outside Intel to collaborators, to the industry partners, we had full endorsement from Intel. The company was 100% behind USB.
Joanna: As you know, the European Inventor Award is an award that honors inventors for their contribution to social, economic and technological progress. According to your perspective, in what way does USB technology benefit society?
Ajay: I think USB has become so ubiquitous; it is found on all smart devices and in even more places like around the seats in airplanes. Also at airports, you’d find USB plugs where you can charge your phone. So USB has really made it very easy for a non-technical person to use the technology whether it be transferring information or charging the device or just using the device.
Joanna: I believe that you have heard of certain fun devices that can be plugged to a computer, like cup warmers, desk ventilators, Christmas trees... Did you ever think that USB technology would go this far and even support such quirky devices?
Ajay: They are all sort of things out there that we have never imagined that are now available in the market. I was in china few weeks ago and I saw warm slippers, where the USB port is used to heat up slippers. There are some things that are being done with USB that are mind-boggling. When we first developed the USB, we thought that it would connect to devices, like a keyboard or mouse. Our goal was to make connections faster and easier. And right now, there are a lot of things that are happening that we had not imagined. Like I mentioned earlier, I could have not imagined a USB plug in a plane to charge your phone. And the other day, I was looking at headphones where the charging is also done through USB.
Joanna: Now, USB stands for Universal Serial Bus (USB), but do you remember the much earlier days when it used to be nicknamed the ‘Useless Serial Bus’, as there weren’t many electronic devices used to connect to a computer in the 1990s. What was your reaction to this?
Ajay: I have actually never heard of that. What I knew was when it started out is that a lot people thought that this could not be done. Even some Intel people including my first supervisor had the same thought and saw this technology as unnecessary. These people did not see the vision that we had, but then there were a whole bunch of people that saw the problem of connectivity and joined us. A lot of obstacles were put in our way. It is always very difficult to start something new and bring people along. Not every person sees that long-term vision that we had and that’s why it feels so much better that our unique vision was validated by the industry and the users. But now, when I look back, all those things didn’t really matter. We have been recognized around the world for the contribution that we made. It is truly a victory for the team.
Joanna: I’d like to know about a second reaction you had when Intel launched the new rock star commercial starring you as the rock star. What was going through your mind when you learned that Intel was going to do a commercial of you?
Ajay: The original idea was that they were going to do a TV spot on a group, where the group is some sort of rock band and they were going to say ‘our rock stars is not like your rock stars’. And then the creative agency had a change of mind and they said they needed one person. That person ended up being me. And out of the group, I was the least engaged in the whole process and cared least about this activity. I am a technologist and I don’t know these marketing things. They developed the spot and came back to me and sent me the video of the 30 second commercial. It didn’t make sense to me. So, I took it home and showed it to my wife and she was not at all happy with the whole concept and said that I shouldn’t participate. But the marketing team worked hard on this project, so my thought was: ‘just like we have great technologists at Intel, we also have very great marketing guys’. I know nothing about marketing, so my comment to them was ‘I hope you get what you’re looking for and I hope it succeeds’. And I just left it at that and didn’t think much about it. And then once it hit the web and the TV, the reaction was very different and surprising to me at least. My gut was proved correct, marketing guys know what they’re doing and it became, according to Intel’s Vice President Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Conrad, one of the most successful campaigns that Intel has had.
Joanna: Did your wife change perspective afterwards?
Ajay: <Laughs> She did. She saw how it resonated with people.
Joanna: And now, to just wrap things up, I’d like to know more about your future projects. I know that you are currently working on transforming PC experiences, one of them being a computer with a battery life that can last up to more than two weeks on standby mode.
Ajay: Correct. I am the chief architect for the PC division at Intel’s PC Client Group. As you know, PCs are going through a transformation, so I am looking at various technologies that would play an important role in that transformation. That is where I spend most of my time looking at various things.
Joanna: What about the future of USB technology? Are there any lingering tasks or is the case closed?
Ajay: USB is constantly evolving. It has to keep up with the needs of current computing environment, as well as the needs of users. The fastest USB today runs at 5Gs per second (which is 10 times faster than the previous USB) and the next one will run at 10 and the one after that will even go up to 20. The USB evolves in a very compatible way. We still have a team that works full-time on the technology. I work with the team when needed, looking at the concepts and providing my feedback as well as technical guidance. Basically, USB has become a must have connection on all devices.
Joanna: Great! Thank you Ajay for your time, and once again, congratulations on the award!
Ajay: Thank you very much!
Click here for highlights on the European Inventor Award.
Ajay Bhatt USB 'Warm Slippers'