U.S. Robotics Corporation (often referred to as USR) is a company that makes USRobotics computer modems and related products. It sold high-speed modems in the 1980s, and had a reputation for high quality and compatibility. With the reduced usage of voiceband modems in North America in the early 21st century, USR is now one of the few modem companies left in that market. It now employs about 125 people worldwide. Despite their name they have never made robots.
USR was founded in 1976 in Chicago, Illinois (and later moved to Skokie, Illinois), by a group of entrepreneurs, including Casey Cowell, who served as CEO for most of the company's history and Paul Collard who designed modems into the mid-80's. The company name is a reference to the fiction of Isaac Asimov, who is credited with inventing the term robotics. Asimov's Robot stories featured a fictional company named U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. Cowell stated at a popular BBS convention they named the company as an homage to Asimov and because in his science fiction works US Robotics eventually became "the biggest company in the universe". (The later 2004 movie I, Robot, which was loosely based on Asimov's works, and set in Chicago, used the name "U.S. Robotics" for the fictional robot manufacturer.) The movie's U.S. Robotics corporate logo resembles a former nonfictional USR logo. Following the release of the movie, the company officially changed its name to USR.
USR was one of many companies to offer dial-up modems for personal computers. Prior to the development of standards such as the V.32 family of protocols, USR introduced its own HST (High-Speed Transfer) protocol in 1986, which operated at 9600 bit/s (bits per second). In 1989 HST was expanded to 14.4 kbit/s, 16.8 kbit/s in 1992, and finally to 21 kbit/s and 24 kbit/s.
USR was not the only company making modems with proprietary protocols; Telebit's TrailBlazer series offered speeds up to 19.2 kbit/s in its first model, and Hayes also introduced a 9600 bit/s Express 96 (or "Ping-Pong") system. However, USR became the most successful of the three, due to a marketing scheme that offered large discounts to BBS sysops.
The proprietary nature of HST allowed USR to maintain its market predominance even when off-brand V.32-based modems began selling for less than equivalent HST modems. As the price differential decreased, however, V.32-based modems eventually became a cost-effective alternative to HST. Nevertheless, USR maintained its user base by creating slightly faster HST protocols (in particular, a 16.8 kbit/s mode) and by producing "dual-standard" modems which were able to communicate with both HST and V.32 modems at high speeds.
During this period, USR differentiated between its high and low-end product lines by supporting only the V.32 modes on its low-end Sportster models, while its high-end Courier models supported V.32, HST, or both in the Courier Dual Standard models. The Sportster used the same motherboard as the Couriers, and on certain 14.4 kbit/s models a sequence of AT commands could be issued to enable the faster 16.8 kbit/s HST mode. The Courier modems remained a favorite in the BBS and emerging Internet service provider world, where they were known to run without problems for extended periods of time (although the initial large-scale deployment of Courier modems in the CompuServe network uncovered a serious bug which would cause the modems to crash and stop answering calls under high call volumes).
Later, when 56 kbit/s modems were introduced, USR again went its own way with its X2 technology pitched against K56flex before the creation of a final formal 56K standard. After the V.90 industry standard became available, USR abandoned its proprietary protocols. In a further effort to reduce the retail price of its modems, USR also marketed a Winmodem that used software running on the host computer to perform some of the modem hardware functions.
Some models of Courier modems were known for their long-term upgradeability, because they used an upgradeable DSP design. For example, when the Courier V.Everything modem was first released in 1994 under the product label "Courier V.34 Ready", it shipped with only V.FC support because V.34 had not been released. A free V.34 upgrade was made available later via FidoNet, as well as the Internet. USR then surprised many early Courier V.Everything modem owners with a limited-time free offer of an X2 firmware upgrade, which added 56K speed capability. Finally, USR released a V.90 upgrade that was compatible with X2-upgraded Courier V.Everything modems. Even the 1994 hardware released pre-V.34 was fully V.90-upgradeable without hardware modification. Many Courier V.Everything modems were still in use more than a decade later.
There was a licensing key needed for some Courier V.Everything V.90 flash upgrades. The firmware could be loaded onto the modem, but it would work in "degraded" V.34 mode. After paying a fee, and having the modem dial USR, a license key was installed which enabled the V.90 functions.
After acquiring Palm, Inc., in 1995, USR merged with 3Com Corporation in June 1997. It was then recreated as a spin-off of 3Com in June 2000, assuming 3Com's entire client modem business except for the Palm-related portion, which itself had been spun off with Palm three months earlier. Other portions of the original USR remained part of 3Com as the CommWorks Corporation. USR then quickly built up its device portfolio, including not only traditional dial-up modems, but also wired- and wireless-networking components, although, as of 2010, the company is focused only on the traditional modem business. The company was acquired by private equity firm Platinum Equity for an undisclosed amount of cash in 2005, believed to be between US$30 million and US$50 million.