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USB4 integrates Thunderbolt 3 along with USB Type-C, pushes unified standards for linking everywhere with everyone

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This year, the big technical development of the USB technology is USB4. This upcoming standard promises to integrate the high-bandwidth Thunderbolt 3 specification and along with it the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) will simplify the USB branding scheme. With USB4 serving as both an upgrade to the feature set and a physical layer tweak to provide more data bandwidth, the specification will be made available in 2019 according to the USB-IF.

USB4 promises 40Gbps speed, cuts the confusion

The USB4 specification will be based on the Thunderbolt 3 protocol that Intel has contributed to the USB Promoter Group. The new interface will use USB Type-C connectors and will maintain backwards compatibility with USB 2.0, USB 3.2, and Thunderbolt 3 interfaces. The maximum data transfer rate supported by the new USB4 interface is 40 Gbps over 40 Gbps-certified cables. Also, USB4 will support various display protocols and USB Power Delivery 3.0.

USB4's underlying Thunderbolt 3 protocol also means the specification can support two 4K displays or even future 8K TV over a single cable. This new specification is trying to unify the Thunderbolt and USB protocols as part of Intel's goal to make Thunderbolt available on a royalty-free basis, which should result in broader adoption and lower cost availability of Thunderbolt accessories in the future. The USB4 standard will be officially published in the middle of 2019. At present, several global companies are actively participating in the final stages of development of the draft USB4 specification. After the specification is officially released, it is estimated that it will take 12 to 18 months before products will be available in the market, Ravencraft highlights.

USB Type-C is a reversible, highly reliable connector. It is a great thing, not just for smartphones, but for pretty much everything with the idea of one cable and one port that can do it all. To address the immense demands of digital video, audio, data transfer and power charging requirements, USB-IF saw the need for a new, robust cable and connector. This new cable and connector scheme is generating significant buzz from the global consumer market and is making its way into high-volume shipments of mobile devices, PCs, tablets, multimedia devices and even applications across automotive. Ecosystem partners have also come up with various protocols to run over the USB Type-C cable and connector such as Thunderbolt, HDMI, and DisplayPort.

The global market penetration of USB Type-C is forecasted to reach 5 billion units per year in 2021, according to IHS reports, showing a massive ramp for the period 2016 to 2021. There are four major markets driving the adoption of this standard, including consumer electronics, PC & peripherals, networking and automotive solutions.

Fast USB charging with PPS improving user experience

Besides high data rate updates, consumers are looking for improvements to the battery charging experience. USB Power Delivery (USB PD) adoption continues to expand the USB ecosystem. The current USB PD 3.0 specification provides developers multiple voltage ranges to consider when designing their USB solution. USB PD 3.0 chipsets can supply up to 100W of continuous power flow, enough to power all kinds of desktop and mobile devices. Meanwhile, the USB PD 3.0 specification supports the Programmable Power Supply (PPS) feature, which is being widely adopted by global smartphone brands to enable fast charging over USB based on an open industry standard. This feature creates new use cases for managing the amount of electrical current to optimize the battery's charge speed and long-term health considering sensitive thermal control requirements for smartphone batteries.

Together with the three significant benefits of fast data rates, fast charging and usability with fully reversible plug orientation and cable direction, USB Type-C has the potential to become the connector of choice for all next-generation products. With the USB4 specification, there are new business opportunities coming for silicon IP providers, chip makers, testing laboratories and equipment vendors. Ravencraft feels very optimistic about USB Type-C future development.

Clear up the confusion of USB Type-C

Although many USB standards have been released to the market over the past few years, there is technical terminology confusion regarding what capabilities are included in each device or cable. For instance, some system makers improperly use specification names to describe their USB solutions to consumers, such as USB 3.2 Gen 2x2. But consumers do not seem to understand nor care what the specification names mean as long as their USB products work without posing a risk to the functionality and interoperability of their existing products.

To cut the confusion, USB-IF hopes to educate end consumers to look for the certified logos awarded to products that have passed USB-IF's Compliance Program. The current logo system includes High-Speed USB, SuperSpeed USB, SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps, SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps, Certified USB Chargers and Certified USB Fast Chargers. Once a product successfully achieves USB-IF certification, the company can a sign logo license agreement and then use the certified logos for clearly identifying the supported performance and charging capabilities.

USB authentication enabling a secured connection

Ecosystem partners spend resources to build compliant products and submit them for testing to the USB-IF Compliance Program in order to feature logos on their products. At the same time, USB-IF is engaged with international organizations like the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC) and the China Communications Standards Association (CCSA) to expand international standards cooperation to include support for the USB Type-C and USB Power Delivery specifications as well as the other USB protocol specifications. This approach for ongoing standardization work is driven by the worldwide regulation organization goals of minimizing e-waste in landfills, increasing external power supply reusability, supporting consumer convenience, maintaining product reliability and safety. In addition, widespread adoption of the resulting international standards will help to reduce the poorly designed or manufactured aftermarket substitutes, which may affect the operation of electronic devices in compliance with regulatory requirements.

Further, USB-IF released the USB Type-C Authentication Specification using a cryptographic-based authentication protocol for USB Type-C chargers and devices. Using this protocol, host systems can confirm the authenticity of any USB cable or device, including capabilities and certification status. This verification process occurs immediately when a USB cable or device is plugged into a host port and before compromising power or data can be transferred. The authentication protocol empowers host systems to protect against non-compliant USB devices and to mitigate risks from maliciously embedded hardware or software in USB devices attempting to exploit a USB connection. The USB Type-C standard supports this authentication protocol for building solutions to enable secure connection and power charging scheme between notebook PCs, smartphones, storage devices and chargers.

Ravencraft added that there are several chip makers producing controller ICs to communicate with devices to deliver optimum power. These chips include built-in security safeguards and are able to communicate with devices that meet the USB PD 3.0 specification to deliver the optimum power for fast charging the device. Host and device manufactures will be deploying this unique authentication feature, including some first-tier Japanese and Korean brands are expected to announce new products to prevent the non-complaint cables or power adaptors from harming their products. It is very optimistic that more chip makers are starting to look at these requirements and positively enable enterprise cybersecurity solution providers to build dedicated solutions to secure the data transfer process between USB devices and USB host in the future.

Ravencraft continues, through the efforts to promote the Certified USB Logo & Compliance Program, USB-IF supports the evolving device and computing markets as more products adopt USB4, USB Type-C and Certified USB Charging. The use of the USB Type-C standard is expected to increase, as it's simply the most robust and ubiquitous interface that provides product manufacturers and end users with the greatest flexibility for use and expansion. And most of all, USB Type-C is continuing to create versatile use cases to satisfy various customers' needs. It is exciting to see the growth and continued adoption of USB Type-C technology increasing around the world.

Mr. Jeff Ravencraft, President and COO of USB-IF's

USB-IF's President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) Jeff Ravencraft discusses the trends of development of USB technology at Computex 2019. The global ecosystem partners showcased new product development at the USB Community pavilion booth.

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