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USB4: What’s Different and Why It Matters

https://www.howtogeek.com/446892/usb4-whats-different-and-why-it-matters/

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USB-C cable beside silver laptop on a shiny black desk.
kontrymphoto/Shutterstock

The next great (and possibly confusing) version of USB is on its way. In early September 2019, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) published the USB4 specification paving the way for blazing-fast USB connections comparable to the speeds of Thunderbolt 3.

The Specification Is Ready

That Thunderbolt comparison isn’t a coincidence. Intel contributed the Thunderbolt protocol specification to the USB Promoter Group. (The Promoter Group is an industry organization charged with developing USB specifications, while the USB-IF advocates for the advancement and adoption of USB technology.)

When USB4 ports start showing up in laptops and elsewhere, it promises maximum speeds of 40 Gigabits per second (Gbps). That’s double the maximum of current USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. As with other versions of USB, USB4 will be backward compatible with USB 2.0 and up, and in some cases, those USB4 ports will even work with Thunderbolt 3 gear.

Unfortunately, Thunderbolt 3 isn’t mandatory. Some USB4 devices may omit it.

It sounds like a pretty good upgrade, but if there’s anything we can say about the people behind USB, it’s that they sure know how to confuse everyone. USB4 may be no different. Let’s dive in.

RELATED: USB 4 Will Bring Thunderbolt Speeds for Less Money

Multiple Speeds

USB4 won’t be just one single standard that you can expect to work the same across all devices. Instead, it will come in two different speeds. In addition to the potential for a maximum 40Gbps speed, there’s also a 20Gbps speed. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a third option of 10Gbps in the USB4 spec. However, the USB-IF told us that this is simply a fallback speed to support backward compatibility. In other words, don’t expect to see USB4 devices limited to that lowest speed.

It’s currently unclear what the two major USB4 speeds will be called when they hit store shelves. Behind the scenes, the 40 Gbps USB4 speed is called Gen 3×2, and the 20 Gbps speed is Gen 2×2. Those are technical terms for device makers and not something for the signage at your local computer store.

The USB-IF says its branding guidelines will be announced in early 2020. At that time, “there will be a focus on clearly indicating performance levels to the general consumer,” according to a USB-IF spokesperson.

That’s good news as it’s confusing enough right now with USB 3.2, which comes in Gen 1 and Gen 2 and Gen 2×2 flavors. Yes, it’s pretty confusing.

Backward Compatibility

As with other versions of USB, this one is backward compatible with its predecessors. Specifically, USB 2.0 and up. That means if you have a USB 2.0 external hard drive for backups, you can still connect it to a USB4 port. To make that work, you’ll need an adapter to go from USB Type-A (standard USB) to USB Type-C, and our imaginary drive will still be limited to the speeds of USB 2.0.

Also, those USB Type-C cables you have right now are probably not going to be good enough for USB4. It will still support the older speeds, but if you want to see that transfer rate increase, you’ll need new cables and new gear.

Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatibility

Black Thunderbolt 3 cable on a black background with a blue halo.
Intel

The USB-IF says that USB4 can be backward compatible with Intel’s Thunderbolt 3, which also uses Type-C connectors. That makes sense since USB4 incorporates Thunderbolt 3’s specifications.  Thunderbolt 3 support is not mandatory for USB4, however. While Intel gave the USB-IF free use of the Thunderbolt 3 spec, it did not offer free use of the Thunderbolt 3 name.

Any device manufacturer that wants to advertise its USB4 ports as backward compatible with Thunderbolt 3 will need to be certified by Intel. That’s why Intel’s data transfer technology isn’t particularly widespread.

In practical terms, we don’t expect the situation with Thunderbolt 3 to change very much for PCs. You can forget about seeing official Thunderbolt 3 compatibility on AMD-based machines, for example—just like before USB4.

There will probably be a few Intel-based motherboards rocking USB4 ports certified for Thunderbolt 3, but for the most part, PC builders will rely on expansion cards to support Thunderbolt 3 devices.

Laptops are slightly different. Thunderbolt 3 isn’t widespread, but it is more common on clamshells than on desktops. Thunderbolt 3-capable laptops are popular for use with external graphics card docks, for example.

When it comes time to replace an old laptop with a new one packing USB4, the critical issue will be to make sure it supports your old Thunderbolt 3 gear. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to either dump your old peripherals or look for a laptop that does support the older standard via USB4.

Dynamic Bandwidth Sharing

One of the best parts of USB4 is that it’s going to pay attention to how much bandwidth devices need when they’re sharing resources. The most common example of this is if you’re running an external storage device and a display at the same time.

USB4 is smart enough to keep the frame rates high for the display while giving the external drive what it needs to transfer data.

USB Power Delivery Everywhere

All USB 4 devices will include USB Power Delivery technology (USB PD), which can deliver up to 100 watts of power through a USB port. The idea is to allow more than just the slow drip charging for phones through the USB ports on a laptop.

USB PD uses intelligent charging to make sure the device being charged gets as much power as the charging device can muster. The two devices will negotiate charging rates so that the charge is not too fast or too slow, depending on the device’s need.

One Type of Port

USB4 is supposed to be the port-sized revolution that makes USB more universal in everyday usage. Currently, we have a boatload of standard USB Type-A ports with data transfer speeds between, “I’m questioning my life choices” and “well, that wasn’t so bad.” Then there are micro-USB ports used mainly for charging on phones, and the new Type-C ports with more speed choices than a mountain bike.

This is all to point out that USB is a mess of cables and confusion. Since USB4 is sticking with the Type-C connectors, we may finally see a single type of port suitable for any sized-device, and a single cable connector for everything.

We wouldn’t expect that universal revolution to happen anytime soon, however, as laptop makers will likely continue to include Type-A ports in laptops to provide dongle-free backward compatibility to enterprises and home users.

Plus, even if Type-C eventually becomes universal, there will still be a ton of speed variations between the various flavors of USB.

RELATED: USB Type-C Explained: What is USB-C and Why You’ll Want it

USB4 Sounds Great, But When?

We’re not quite clear when USB4 will start rolling out. Device makers are usually willing to adopt new USB technologies relatively quickly compared to other standards, such as the currently lagging SD and microSD Express. We’re probably looking at mid- to late-2020, and possibly even 2021 before USB4 really takes off.

RELATED: What Is microSD Express, and Why Does It Matter?

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion. This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would…

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom. Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition. To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and…

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in…

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.

Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.

Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.

The numbers

Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.

So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.

But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.

Here’s the tally of guest stays in Airbnb’s during New Years Eve (data via CNBC, Jon Erlichman, Airbnb), and their resulting year-over-year growth rates:

  • 2009: 1,400
  • 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
  • 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
  • 2012: 108,000 (248%)
  • 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
  • 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
  • 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
  • 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
  • 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
  • 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
  • 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)

In chart form, that looks like this:

Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.

Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.

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