Apple takes a step away from FireWire

The Mac maker is defaulting to USB for its new iPods, even though it developed the competing FireWire connection.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
FireWire is still Apple Computer's baby, but the proud parent is cutting the cord.

With the latest crop of iPods, Apple is no longer including a FireWire cable in the box. The music players will still work with FireWire, if a cord is purchased separately, but only a USB 2.0 cable comes with the device. The move is part of a gradual shift on Apple's part to standardize the iPod on USB, which is far more common in the Windows world.

Although Apple's embrace has been gradual over several years, it is still a big shift for a company that helped develop the standard behind FireWire, technically known as IEEE 1394, and has been one of its biggest proponents.

IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian identified two main reasons for the shift. First, it used to not be possible to recharge the device via USB.


What's new:
With its new lower-priced generation of iPods, Apple isn't including a FireWire cord, providing users users the more PC-friendly USB option.

Bottom line:
The move saves Apple a few bucks and admits that USB, not FireWire, is the dominant connection technology.

More stories on iPod

"They've been wedded to FireWire for a long time because it allowed them to charge (the iPod)," she said.

The other issue is cost. With the latest round of products, Apple cut its prices. By omitting the FireWire cord, the company can gain back some of the lost profit margins.

"It's more cost efficient to ship with one cable rather than two, and USB is more broadly supported on both platforms," Kevorkian said. "FireWire, it ships on some PCs, but not the vast majority."

Nonetheless, some Mac owners were rankled by the move, saying that as recently as a year or two ago many Macs didn't include a USB 2.0 port. As of Wednesday night, more than 1,300 people had signed an online petition calling on Apple to again include a FireWire cable with iPods.

Gary Reich, an Annapolis, Md.-based boating publication editor and owner of three Macs, said he launched the petition because he "felt a little betrayed."

"We, as dedicated users and supporter of your hardware and software are completely dismayed at your recent decision to discontinue standard FireWire support for the iPod music player line," the petition states, going on to note that "It is very unfortunate that you have left your faithful out in the dark on this one."

When the iPod debuted in 2001, it used only FireWire, and even the second crop of iPods--the first to support Windows--lacked USB support entirely. It wasn't until April 2003, with the dock connector-based iPods, that Apple first offered a USB 2.0 option. And then it was USB 2.0, which had to be bought separately as a $19 extra.

But there are clearly more and more Windows users that are looking for an iPod.

Shortly after Apple started selling a Windows-compatible iPod, the company said the breakdown of Mac versus PC users was about evenly split. But, at

that time, only FireWire-equipped PCs could connect to an iPod. Now, nearly all PC users have the ability to connect to an iPod. In addition, iPod sales are now several times those of new Macs.

Apple first showed a clear preference for USB with its flash memory-based iPod Shuffle, which debuted in January. That player has a built-in USB attachment and uses that port for data transfer and charging.

USB creep
On its Macs, Apple has gradually been adding USB 2.0 ports alongside those for FireWire, adding it, for example, in 2003 to the iMac line.

Apple said it is still committed to supporting FireWire on the iPod, but sees USB as a more common port on which to standardize.

"We've been a proponent of both," said Greg Joswiak, Apple vice president of iPod marketing. "We try not to be religious about (it)."

Joswiak notes that Apple helped popularize USB when the company went USB-only on the original iMac.

"We're also the guys that made USB work," he said.

There are a few downsides to cutting the FireWire cord from the iPod box. There is a generation of Macs that have FireWire ports, but their only USB port is the slower USB 1.1. That version transfers files much more slowly and does not carry enough power to charge an iPod. Also, some USB hubs do not carry power, meaning iPod owners need to remember to plug the devices directly into their Mac or PC to charge them. Those who want the FireWire cord will now have to pay $19 to get one.

Who's a niche technology now, huh?
Advocates of FireWire had once pitched a much broader role for the connector, arguing that USB was the more niche technology, best suited for things like mice and keyboards. Instead, USB 2.0 has become nearly ubiquitous and it is FireWire that is seen as more the niche player.

FireWire and USB 2.0 both have roughly similar transfer rates, but they have found different markets. Macs typically have both ports. On Windows machines, USB 2.0 is standard, while FireWire is often left out or made available as an option.

On the peripheral side, while both USB 2.0 and FireWire are used for external hard drives, USB 2.0 is more common for digital cameras and FireWire for camcorders. More recently, Apple has been trying to make inroads for FireWire in the consumer electronics world, particularly as a secure method of transmitting digital video.

A faster version of FireWire, known as IEEE 1394.b or FireWire 800, offers roughly twice the speed of FireWire and USB 2.0. It is offered by Apple on its professional models and on some external hard drives, but has yet to see widespread adoption.