The USB-IF has apparently decided to extend the already-confusing naming scheme it used for USB 3.X in new and exciting ways. To briefly recap: Up to USB 3.0, USB branding was sane. With the introduction of USB 3.1, the USB-IF decided to create a new naming convention. USB 3.1 capability would be known as “USB 3.1 Gen 2,” while USB 3.0 would be rebranded as “USB 3.1 Gen 1.”
This was confusing enough. Then, earlier this year, the USB-IF made it worse. When it introduced USB 3.2, it rebranded every previous product generation again. Now we had three standards: USB 3.2 Gen 1 (aka, USB 3.0), USB 3.2 Gen 2 (aka, USB 3.1 Gen 2), and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. The new product matrix looked like this:
An engineer familiar with the USB-IF’s plans has shared details surrounding the upcoming USB4 standard. The new brand is apparently “USB4” not “USB 4.0,” which makes some sense — people often drop the space between “USB” and “3.” But according to the source, USB4 will also be marketed according to the number of lanes that it offers.
Once the specifications are released, there will be a new round of confusion,” the source told TechRepublic. “It’s going to be USB4, but you have to qualify what USB4 means, because there are different grades. USB4, by definition, has to be [at least] Gen 2×2, so it will give you 10 Gbps by 2, that’s 20 Gbps. There’s going to be USB4 Gen 3×2, which is 20 Gbps per lane. 20 by 2 will give you 40 Gbps.
USB4 Gen 3×2 is stated. USB4 Gen 2×2 is implied. Why not staple on some Greek letters or Linear B script while you’re at it? Companies like Intel, Nvidia, and AMD have absolutely made branding mistakes — Intel’s Xeon Scalable product family is not particularly easy to parse — but they also take care to offer product labels that mix numbers and letters in ways that give readers an idea of overall performance. We expect the GeForce 2080 to be faster than the 1080, and the 2080 to be faster than the 2070. The Ryzen 7 3700X is faster than the 2700X, the Core i7-8550U is faster than the Core i7-7500U. When companies deliver new products that are numbered higher than older ones but don’t deliver better performance, as sometimes happens in the GPU market, we call it out. “USB4 Gen 3×2” isn’t a misrepresentation; it’s just incomprehensible to someone who isn’t plugged into the tech industry.
We Have Obviously Made a Terrible Mistake
The problem appears to have begun, as all problems do, with XKCD.
When USB-C was unveiled, it was touted as the “everything” cable. USB-C can deliver power. USB-C can deliver Thunderbolt. USB-C can deliver DisplayPort. USB-C is, to its credit, an extremely flexible standard. The problem is, companies want to sell that standard in a huge range of configurations, and they don’t want to pay for features or cable capability they don’t require.
This has created real problems with USB-C cable qualification and capability. The days of being able to automatically assume that every micro USB cable was just like every other micro USB cable are over. Using a USB-C cable that isn’t built to the specs your device requires results in issues that range from annoying (not being able to use a cable for video output) to highly destructive (literally bricking hardware).
I sympathize with the USB-IF, which is attempting to roll out a comprehensive standard time when that standard has to cover a huge variety of products. But there simply must be a better way to balance a comprehensive standard with a comprehensible standard. One place to start would be to drop the linkages out of the product name and simply use the provided bandwidth. USB4 40Gbps. USB4 60Gbps. And even if those simple ideas are unworkable, there has to be a better way to communicate the relationship between standard and bandwidth than asking people to compare the relative merits of “USB 3.2 Gen 2×2” versus “USB4 Gen 3×2.” Branding is supposed to make it easier for a company to communicate product advantages and features to the public, not confuse them.
We’re still assuming that USB 3.2 and 3.1 will not be redefined as “USB4” parts in some future update. If those products are also respun again, the USB-IF might actually win a competition against the iBeat Blaxx for one of the worst consumer product names ever. (Those of you with your own memories of worthy “worst product name ever,” contenders are invited to drop them below).