What is “universal” about USB?

I am one of those hopeless romantics who believe that words must mean something. “Universal” is quite a stong word when used, and its all-encompassing reach implies that it is good for … well, everything. As in the whole universe which contains that thing.

USB.org lists at least 18 connectors according to “device class”, few of which you would consider interchangeable with another. I have seen, for example radically differently shaped portable hard drive connectors over the years (at least 3 kinds) that all say they are USB, and all illustrated in the photo montage provided here. They would never be considered interchangeable.

Perhaps by “universal”, USB.org (homepage of the USB implementers forum) just means that this is another attempt to apply industry standards to an understandably chaotic computer industry. “Universal” invites mental images of “one connector-fits-all”, and we can see that can’t be the case, and it is pretty much impossible given the data needs of different devices. It appears to be an attempt to eliminate or reduce proprietary connectors, which are often made by one manufacturer for one device, and never seen again in the next model year, by any manufacturer. It is a way for a consortium of manufacturers to agree “OK, if we want to advertise USB on our products, we have to pick from this or that set of connectors to sport the USB logo on our package.”

I notice that among many of the predictable companies represented in the consortium (Intel, HP, and a plethora of small corporations and manufacturers numbering in the thousands), Apple is also on the board of directors. Apple, the current reigning king of consumer lock-in has allowed their proprietary connectors to be made by anyone. I bought one at a gas station — it works surprisingly well. It consists of a USB main cord ending with a micro USB connector, over which I can fit a (Apple) lightning connector attachment and have it both ways. I can charge and transfer data to and from my iPad with it.

Again, romantic old me talking here, but if I lose or damage a USB connector, I should be able to find replacement connectors at any electronics shop. In reality though I don’t expect stores to sell all 18 or so different kinds of cable. But I also should not be forced to send off to the manufacturer of my device for one, often at exhorbitant cost, which is what I think the consortium was trying to avoid.