Tech Standards Still Making Slow but Steady Progress with USB4 and WebAuthn
Accessory cables and passwords may not seem to have much in common, but the reality is they’re both a regular part of our day-to-day tech existence. We use them both, all the time. Yesterday, the two were linked together in a completely different way, thanks to important announcements about each of the technologies making the news.
First, the USB Promoter Group announced the release of the USB4 specification, the latest iteration of this critical connectivity standard. Building on the existing 3.2 version of the spec, USB4 integrates complete support for Thunderbolt 3.0 over USB-C connectors, including transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps (twice as fast as USB 3.2). In other words, USB4 will bring all the benefits of Thunderbolt 3 to any device that enables the new USB standard, but at no additional cost. This important new capability was enabled by Intel—who invented and owns Thunderbolt 3 technology—offering a license-free royalty for Thunderbolt protocols to the USB Implementer’s Forum. The end result is that, by sometime in 2020, we should see much broader adoption of the technology across a wider range of PCs and peripherals.
Second, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which manages and coordinates web standards, announced the ratification of the WebAuthn (short for Web Authentication) protocol, a new browser and website standard for password-less authentication. Driven by the work of the FIDO Alliance, WebAuthn provides a standardized way for various types of authentication mechanisms, including USB-based hardware keys as well as biometric technologies such as face scanners, fingerprint readers, etc., to pass along credentials securely between devices and websites. There had been some other proprietary methods for doing authentication online, but the official release of the final WebAuthn spec means that we should start to see more websites offer password-free login options soon—all of which will be more secure than the clearly broken password-driven mechanisms of today.
To fully take advantage of WebAuthn, websites will have to build-in support for it—it won’t automatically rid us of passwords—but now that a W3C standard is in place, that process should move more quickly. Thankfully, most modern browsers, including Chrome, Edge, Mozilla, and Safari already include support for WebAuthn, so now it’s just up to the sites themselves to make the effort.
In the case of USB4, we should finally have what we were originally promised with Thunderbolt 3—one connection standard to rule them all—but in a much more egalitarian fashion. No one ever complained about the technical capabilities of Thunderbolt 3, but many PC and peripheral vendors weren’t eager to pay Intel for Thunderbolt controller chips (or IP royalties for the technology), so adoption of the connectivity standard was more limited than many, including Intel, hoped. By making the technology available for free and incorporating it into their next generation Ice Lake CPUs and platforms, the company is enabling much broader support, and we’ll finally start to see a much wider array of devices and accessories—including displays, external GPUs, storage, docks, and more—using it. Unfortunately, labelling and verification of USB4 could still be a bit tricky because of the open-ended nature of the USB standard, but good news is that existing Thunderbolt 3-verified cables and devices should work interchangeably with USB4.
As with many standards-related announcements, we won’t see the benefits of either of these developments overnight. Realistically, it will be mid-2020 before we start to see widespread deployments of USB4 in devices and peripherals, and large numbers of websites that leverage the security enhancements of WebAuthn. Still, what these announcements highlight, and help us to remember, is that critical tech standards continue to evolve and continue to make important progress towards improving the usability and security of working with tech devices. The process may not be pretty, but the results clearly are. Here’s to a faster, easier, and more secure 2020.