A couple weeks ago, we had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Mueller – President/Chairman USI – on The Chrome Cast. The episode was a ton of fun to be a part of and the story behind the emergence of USI pens is not only interesting, it is pretty important to the entire laptop industry moving forward. Not only will USI pens affect users on Chromebooks, but Windows laptops as well. As a matter of fact, we could end up seeing Android devices adopt the standard down the road if things go well.
In the middle of that conversation on the podcast, Pete made mention of a fact that will become quite important as the next wave of Chromebooks begin to arrive: USI pen support is not just an option for Chromebooks at this point. Instead, USI compatibility is required for Chromebooks that support a stylus in any way.
It is important to note this only applies to devices that plan to ship with pen support, so don’t mistake this as anyone saying that all Chromebooks will ship with USI support. Instead, this is Google mandating that USI is the de facto way to implement stylus support for Chrome OS. From what we understand, there are dual-protocol setups that would allow for something like an EMR stylus input (think Galaxy Chromebook) alongside USI, but there is no situation where a Chromebook will ship without USI support if a pen is part of that Chromebook’s equation.
Why this matters
In the end, this is Google fully embracing a new-ish standard and rallying around it in a way that will eventually make it so that users can use one stylus across any Chromebook they pick up. Just like we fully expect to plug in USB peripherals and have them be discovered and simply work, USI is a similar standard we’ll see in more and more devices down the road just a bit. Now that pens are finally starting to arrive (Lenovo’s own just started shipping today), we’re getting to the point where we may finally see USI begin to truly take hold in the market.
Unfortunately, Google has a track record of being a bit soft when asked to enforce certain rules in its software. Just look at face unlock on the Pixel 4 if you need an example of this. Google needed to push developers to adopt this new authentication method, yet for whatever reason, they weren’t able to put their foot down to mandate support for the feature. A year later, no other Android phone offers the same, secure face unlock that the Pixel 4 has and even Google seems to be giving up on pushing the tech forward for Android with their upcoming Pixel 5 device.
With USI and Chrome OS, Google is choosing to be a bit more forceful on a topic that frankly deserves it. Chrome OS is owned, maintained, and completely handled by Google. Sure, Chromium and Chromium OS are open source, but Chrome and Chrome OS are uniquely Google’s and they have the ability on this platform to make and uphold the rules. Instead of bending to manufacturers like they tend to do with Android, we’re seeing a bit more clarity and resolve from Google with Chromebooks and Chrome OS.
Decisions like these help congeal the ecosystem as a whole and keep fragmentation down to a minimum. Up to this point, most consumers have no idea what stylus goes with what Chromebook. Ask some people you know if they understand the difference between EMR, AES and USI and watch their eyes glaze over a bit. This is not info the general consumer should even care about in the least. Instead, they should know if their Chromebooks supports a pen or not and move forward from there. Soon, the decision will be that simple and any pen USI pen you have on you will do the job you expect. It’s how it will be and how should be.