When your organization is knee-deep in setting technical standards for the broader world, don’t forget that mere mortals have to use this stuff, too. The USB Implementers Forum learned this lesson recently.
I got a really big monitor for the holidays, and it made me truly appreciate how complicated technical standards can be.
I asked for the monitor with all the extra ports because I anticipate using it for a lot of stuff—old computers, new computers, game consoles, you name it. I’m a computer nerd, and this is what I do with my free time. But standards are complicated things, and what worked a few years ago might not work today. Plug a 4K monitor into a computer with an out-of-date cable—or choose HDMI over Thunderbolt—and you might be terribly disappointed with the result.
The Universal Serial Bus, or USB, has been dealing with problems just like this over the past few years. As I wrote in 2014, the USB Implementers Forum had managed to pull off an improbable feat over the prior two decades or so, with the technology becoming the de facto standard for plugging in just about everything. At that time, the forum was on the way to releasing its successor USB-C, which appeared in a big way on Apple laptops starting in 2015.
How USB Got Confusing
But as the reversible USB-C port grew into a standard in its own right—showing up on laptops, desktops, and smartphones alike—it gained a ton of extra baggage. This was partly because Thunderbolt 3, a competing technical standard created by Intel, was built to use the same port as USB-C, which eventually led USB-C to take on many of the aspects of the faster Intel-developed standard. In 2017, along came USB 3.2, a three-tier system for USB branding with a terribly confusing naming scheme.
(Deep breath.) Let me try to explain it. The former USB 3.0, which offered speeds of up to 5 gigabits per second, was now known as USB 3.2 Gen 1; the former USB 3.1, with a faster speed of 10 gigabits per second, was renamed USB 3.2 Gen 2; and the newest standard, a 20-gigabit-per-second connection, was called USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. These all used the same ports, but if you walked into a store and bought a cable, you might be utterly confused as to what you were buying. Some of these ports specialized in power delivery, meaning you could charge your phone or laptop through the ports; others did not.
And despite all these new technologies, you might end up buying a USB-C device that only supported the downright ancient USB 2.0 specification, released 20 years ago this April. (This happened to me when I purchased my current phone, a OnePlus 6T, last year.)
As you might imagine, the tech community savaged this unnecessarily confusing naming scheme, especially after the logo designs for these ports were revealed.
The good news is that the USB Implementers Forum appears to have taken the negative response to heart, and it announced a solution last week that might win them a lot of fans once again.
The new USB4 standard gets away from the obfuscating words in the name, instead including the actual speed of the cables in the logo styling for the devices. If a port supports 20 gigabits per second or the new 40-gigabit-per-second speed, it will be made clear from the logo design.
“The branding is simple. It makes it clear whether it’s the faster or fastest form of USB4,” How-To Geek’s Ian Paul wrote last week. “We also won’t be surprised if people drop the 4 from USB4, and just refer to these as USB20 and USB40, since that’s what will appear on the packaging.”
(Even better, the forum simplified the branding of the older USB 3-era devices as well.)
Takeaways for Associations
Associations often help build or manage technical standards—not just for their members, but also for the broader world. And when names and labels aren’t clear, it’s harder for consumers to take advantage of the innovations being offered.
Technical standards often need marketing help, because the message needs to to do more than simply explain a new technology. It needs to explain what that product does. And that product might do a lot of things. This requires speaking in a accessible way to an outside audience.
For example, the Wi-Fi Alliance won fans for moving away from using technical terminology defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and instead coming up with easy-to-follow marketing language based on generation.
But even beyond marketing, if you’re trying to communicate what a technology can do to a nontechnical or consumer audience, it helps to get the messaging cleaned up. While your staff and your members may get the lingo, the public likely will not.
And they’re often the people using what your industry produces.