Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How humble USB turned engineer into tech 'rock star'

  • Intel's Ajay Bhatt explains how he created industry standard USB device
  • More than 10 billion USB devices are thought to be in circulation worldwide
  • Bhatt worked hard to convince competitors that USB could benefit all parties financially
  • The newest editions of USB device are 400 times faster than original models

(CNN) -- With computer technology advancing at an ever bewildering pace, it's comforting to know that one little feature remains steadfastly future-proof and, more importantly, foolproof.

The USB (Universal Serial Bus) is as relevant today as it was when the 12 millimeter by 4.5 millimeter ports and cables first started appearing back in the late 1990s, providing users with a discreet and straightforward way of transferring data between a range of digital devices.

Today, more than 10 billion USB devices are believed to be in use around the world -- a statistic that has secured its co-inventor, Ajay Bhatt, a permanent place in computing's unofficial hall of fame.

"I was totally surprised by how it has impacted everybody. I mean, my name became a common name -- at least at schools and in technical communities," Bhatt said.

The engineer's high standing in computing circles was famously celebrated in a 2009 advertising campaign by his employers, Intel, where an actor portraying Bhatt strutted into a lab full of starstruck co-workers.

"I truly get a rock star treatment and that is quite unusual to me -- people asking for your signature, people asking for your picture."

Silent success of BLUMOTION hinge
Divine inspiration behind Post-it Notes
Harvesting rubber from dandelions

His journey to digital immortality began in the early 1990s amid the growing tangle of chunky cables and portals which linked the separate devices on PCs and laptops.

Read: Raspberry Pi + Arduino = $100 super PC

One cable would talk to the keyboard, Bhatt recalls, while another would connect a modem. A different cable enabled printing, with another linking the hard drive to the monitor.

"It was more difficult than it needed to be," he says.

"You were looking at two devices with connecting wires and you wanted things to happen but the rules weren't that simple. It was very difficult for the average person to use it. All the technology at that point was developed for technologists by technologists."

He set about creating a single connection for computers across the entire industry. For six years he lobbied colleagues at Intel and then at other computer firms, urging everyone to jump on the bus.

"Initially, it was difficult for them to understand the merits. We had a big tent and we included everybody, we listened to everybody's input and tried to address them to the best of our abilities and that's why USB is successful," Bhatt said.

It was all easier said than done, he says, requiring a radical change in the industry's eco-system.

"In order to be successful in anything like this you have to look at the problem from their perspective. So, if I went to, say, Compaq -- which is now (owned by) Hewlett-Packard -- we used to think about their issues and what problems they faced," he said.

USB was good because it addressed some of the customer satisfaction issues while also helping computer hardware manufacturers to save money.

Bhatt's own commercial expectations for his invention were initially quite modest.

Read: The world's tiniest fisheye camera

"I thought this was a (one off) $40 million opportunity," he says. "I couldn't imagine where USB has gone or where it will continue to go. This has exceeded the wildest of my imaginations."

A lot of people told you that this couldn't be done and then you go to the store or talk to users. They'll all delighted by the USB, how easy it is.
Ajay Bhatt, Intel engineer

The first model (USB 1) arrived on the market in the late 1990s and was an instant hit. Later versions -- USB 2.0 released 2000 and USB 3.0 which debuted in 2008 -- have vastly improved data transfer speeds.

"USB 3.0 is 400 times faster (than our original USB) and as we go forward I see USB going to 816 times faster," Bhatt says.

"It's evolving. The great part of USB is that the first device that you bought can still work with computers today, and hopefully it will work with computers in the future."

Today, around two billion USB's are shipped every year, with millions being sold every day.

But the project has never been about the money, says the 56-year-old.

"Somebody interviewed me once and they said, I don't know, I don't know, if I made a penny per USB point and Intel made a penny per USB point then we would have made a lot of money," he says.

"I think what we did was we created an open standard that everybody can benefit. What I am happy to see is that everybody participates in this eco-system and they are all making money."

The real bottom line for Bhatt though has been an enduring sense of worth in his own personal capital.

"I think for any engineer to see your ideas, your visions on a shelf on a store is an incredible feeling -- you know, because you created something, you imagined something," he says.

"A lot of people told you that this couldn't be done and then you go to the store or talk to users. They'll all delighted by the USB, how easy it is. It makes you feel good."

Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
Imagine if going through airport security was just a matter of walking past a stretch of wall.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
From spotting allergens to counting calories, technology can lend a smart hand in the kitchen.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Meet the 'Flavour Conductor', a magical instrument that took 10,000 hours to build and can change the taste of your drink through the power of sound.
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
Mogees is a technology that turns any object into a musical instrument, by converting the vibrations you make when you touch it into sound.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Scientists are attempting to harness the power of a star by mirroring how the sun produces heat and light. CNN's Nick Glass reports.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Neil Harbisson is the world's first legally recognized cyborg. He has an antenna implanted into his skull that gives him the ability to perceive color.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1618 GMT (0018 HKT)
Move over, hoverboard: new technologies promise to make everything float free through levitation.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Getting a foothold on the property ladder can be a challenge, and the prospects for many of us have been battered by the global recession.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
It's like a chair that isn't there, but magically appears whenever you need it. It's called the Chairless Chair. Find out how it works.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Engineer Alan Bond has been developing a new concept for space travel for over 30 years -- and his creation is now on the verge of lift off.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
Crumbling buildings, burnt-out PCs, and cracked screens -- a new generation of "self-healing" technologies could soon consign them to history.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 0909 GMT (1709 HKT)
Discover a dancing cactus field, basketball on the Hudson River, and mind-bending 3D projections on robotic screens.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 1707 GMT (0107 HKT)
Would you live there? Design student Peter Trimble says it's actually a surprisingly good idea.
May 14, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
Alpha Sphere
Singing Tesla coils, musical ice cream, vegetables on drums... and this ball? Find out how "hackers" have created a new generation of instruments.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
Technology has long learned from nature, but now it's going micro. "Cellular biomimicry" sees designers take inspiration from plant and animal cells.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Forget wearable tech, embeddable implants are here. Learn more about the pioneers who are implanting devices into their bodies.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
A visitor of the 'NEXT Berlin' conference tries out Google Glass, a wearable computer that responds to voice commands and displays information before your eyes. It is expected to go to market in late 2013.
We know how wearable tech can enhance our fitness lives but there's evidence that its most significant application is yet to come: the workplace.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0813 GMT (1613 HKT)
Samsung's research unit announces new way to synthesize graphene, potentially opening the door to commercial production.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
iRobot, creators of vacuuming robot Roomba reveal how they learned from secret experiments -- in space travel, minefields, and toys.
March 28, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
A light-bulb glowing in middle of a room with no wires attached. "It's the future," says Dr Katie Hall.
March 3, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
Knee replacements that encourage cells to regrow could soon be manufactured -- by spiders. Find out how.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
Meet Chuck Hull: the humble American engineer who changed the world of manufacturing.
February 6, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
The key to self-knowledge? Or just the return of the phony "mood ring"? Check out our top mood-sensing technology in development.