ELI5: How are new types of universal technology like USB/USB-C created and who makes them?

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Since 1996, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) has been developing the USB standards. It’s an industry group, where companies work together to improve the standardization of their products. New inventions are considered and discussed for inclusion in future versions of the standards. WiFi is handled by the IEEE-802.11 working group, and many other groups standardize other technologies.


First, you’ll start with a need. I manufacture computers, and hard disks. I need to get data from my computer to my external hard disk. I’ll invent a way to do this, and call it “FastCable” because it uses cable, and moves data fast. My competitors have the same problem, and invented their own solution called “SpeedyCable”. Unfortunately for you the consumer, SpeedyCable and FastCable are only similar in functionality. The cables are different, the connectors are different, the protocols are different… everything is different. Some of y’all consumers start getting annoyed by this, as they want to buy my computer, but they have a couple hundred SpeedyDisk external hard drives, so they can’t afford to switch. I’m out customers! Talking to my competitors at a convention, I learn that they are losing business to me the same way. Folks want to change, but can’t due to the investment. This sucks for everyone! So my competitors and I decide to form a “team” to come up with a way to move data from BOTH brands of laptops to BOTH types of hard disks. I’ll send a few engineers, the competition sends a few engineers, and some smart people from the Internet join the team too. A year into the project, the team releases UniCable. I’ve committed to no longer building FastCable devices, switching to UniCable. My competition has done the same. When you dig deep into the code, you learn that UniCable is really just updated/rewritten SpeedyCable, because theirs made for a better “starting point.” You can take this same method and apply it to just about any industry standards.


USB connections were developed by several companies together. Check Wikipedia for the list. Looks like all the companies were related to PC platforms and had a common problem: Connecting peripheral devices. As for their design process I don’t know what they did, but it works good enough. Right? Sometimes industrial standards just happen. Someone develops a great idea like the seatbelt and governments say everbody’s got to have it. Some standards are created by organizations that literally create standards. Like ISO, ANSI, NEMA, UL, TUV, etc. If you pick up most electronics you will see a list of logos or acronyms of the standards that they meet on the label.


In general, there is usually a consortium of companies or a standard setting organization that sees a need to have a standardized technology in a certain area. For example, 3GPP is a standard setting body in the mobile communications space and sets standards for LTE and features like speech codecs. Sometimes, a standard is created by a bunch of companies submitting ideas and contributions for combination. Other times, a stand setting body might run a competition of sorts to find the best technology, with the winner’s submission being adopted as the standard. The standard setting bodies protect against monopolies and unfair competition through FRAND obligations. I might win a competition for a new standardized music codec, but as part of that, I agree to license my technology to the market on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.


Standards bodies which are generally just self-organized forums run by what is intended to be a representative democracy for the industry. Companies want to work together and not duplicate effort, and cross-compatibility is seen as a benefit to consumers, so they make their R&D a community effort. Let’s look at how it normally would play out. So let’s say you have USB Micro B (the previous major port standard). Lots of companies need USB ports on their devices so they have thoughts about how it should behave and what can be done with it. Over time, they come up with ideas and improvements on the existing tech. For example, some company (or group of companies) sat down and tackled the directionality problem with micro b. They came up with a new design that made it so you could plug it in either way. They take this new design back to the standards body, and then other companies in the community weigh in. We want this small tweak for our own purposes, says one company. Another company says this feature you added here makes it tough for us to do what we’re doing with it, so can we abandon it or find a compromise. So there’s some back and forth, and then eventually they agree on a common approach. They each (or the representatives) go out and implement the concept, and if it works out for everybody, they publish the standard. There are other ways standards happen. A company might come up with a design that they couldn’t get everybody else to agree on, so they just spin it off as their own proprietary variant. Then if others follow suit, it gains traction, eventually it may become a standard that way.