FireWire poised to become ubiquitous

Apple Computer's high-speed connection is moving closer to its goal of becoming standard on the majority of PCs.

5 min read
While Apple Computer was happy to take home an Emmy for its FireWire technology, the company must be even more pleased that the high-speed connection is moving closer to a bigger goal--becoming standard on the majority of PCs.

Apple developed the standard in the mid-1990s as a simpler and faster way for Macs to connect to peripherals, but the company has been actively licensing the technology to other computer makers. Nearly all of the big-name manufacturers now have some models with the connection, which is also known as IEEE 1394.

The technology initially rose to popularity in the video-editing world, where it served as a high-speed way to move video on and off computers. It was for that contribution that Apple was honored Wednesday with an Emmy for engineering from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

On Monday, chipmaker Texas Instruments will demonstrate the next version of the technology, known as 1394.b, which will double the speed at which data can be shared, to 800 megabits per second. The new standard also allows FireWire to carry data over longer distances, using fiber-optic cables as well as traditional copper wiring.

FireWire has competed with USB (universal serial bus) and is now dueling with USB 2.0 to become the dominant standard for connecting computers to peripherals such as digital cameras, external hard drives and CD-burners. Although the verdict has yet to come in, FireWire appears to have an edge over USB 2.0.

Ports for USB, which exchanges data at 12mbps and is much slower than FireWire, are found on nearly all new computers. But USB 2.0, which is designed to be 40 times faster than today's USB, has taken much longer than first anticipated to come to market.

USB 2.0 was "developed at a time when Apple was perceived as holding the industry hostage," Envisioneering Group analyst Richard Doherty said. But USB 2.0 has "lost a lot of support."

There was talk in 1999 that Apple was going to charge companies $1 for each use of the technology. That led Intel and others to come up with USB 2.0, with plans to have it on the market by the end of 2000.

However, Apple and other patent holders settled on a more reasonable rate.

"We've removed all those barriers, and it is very easy to license," said Tom Boger, Apple's worldwide director of Power Mac marketing and one of the company executives who traveled to Hollywood on Wednesday to accept the Emmy.

Those wanting to incorporate FireWire now pay 25 cents for each device that uses FireWire to license the relevant patents from Apple and others, said James Snider, executive director of the 1394 Trade Association.

Even at the lower rate, the royalties add up. Several major PC makers started using the port as early as 1999, with nearly all the major players now incorporating 1394 ports on at least some models. Last year, there were somewhere between 18 million and 20 million PCs shipped with 1394 ports, according to the trade association, or roughly 15 percent of the market.

For Apple, which has often been the first to adopt new technologies, FireWire has been a chance to reap some financial gain from its innovation.

USB 2.0 slowed
ports comparison chart Although USB 2.0 promises a cheaper high-speed interface, it has been slow in coming. Products using the connection technology are just now coming to market and won't really be in widespread use until at least next year. USB 2.0 is designed to transfer data at 480mbps, while today's FireWire can move information at a rate of 400mbps.

But IEEE 1394 isn't only fast, Doherty said, it is also an efficient traffic cop, helping regulate the flow of information among various devices.

"It's so smooth and orderly," Doherty said. "That is what separates it from other high-speed interfaces."

Microsoft initially snubbed USB 2.0 entirely in its forthcoming Windows XP operating system but has retreated slightly. Microsoft now says it will support version 2.0 through add-on drivers.

Even Intel, one of the chief proponents of USB 2.0, has been praising FireWire lately. In particular, Intel sees IEEE 1394 as a way to help make digital video editing a mainstream use of the PC.

"Expect to see a ton of 1394," Intel Vice President Anand Chandrasekher said last week.

While video is the big selling point for FireWire, its adoption has grown with the availability of other types of add-ons. The port is seen now as a fast way to connect to an external hard drive or CD burner. Also, the education market has been a big customer of 1394-enabled computers, said Fred Kim, senior product manager at Gateway.

Gateway, which first added 1394 to its Solo 9300 laptop in 1999, offers the port on two of its three desktop lines and at least two laptop lines.

Divided market seen
Regardless, USB 2.0 will probably still find its market, particularly for tasks that USB handles today, such as connecting the PC to keyboards, mice and scanners.

"USB 2.0 is something that we are watching closely, but FireWire is here today," Apple's Boger said.

The big advantage USB brings to the table is its cost. With little intellectual property costs, backers say version 2.0 can do much of what FireWire does at a lower cost.

Hewlett-Packard, which has been a big proponent of USB 2.0, said it hopes to begin widespread adoption of the technology next spring. Adding FireWire can tack on as much as $10 to the cost of the computer, noted Lara Kahler, worldwide product marketing manager for HP's laptop unit.

Texas Instruments' Steve Schnier said that getting the bill of materials to $5 on a particular port means meeting the cost goals of most PC and consumer electronics makers. TI is the leading maker of FireWire chips but also makes chips for USB peripherals.

"We are getting very close, or have met, that sweet spot for customers," said Schnier, the manager of TI's PC connectivity market.

The origins of FireWire can be traced to the 1990s when Apple was seeking a way to replace the aging SCSI port that had been a part of the Macintosh since its early days.

"We needed to surpass what SCSI was capable of doing in a more easy-to-use way," Boger said. In addition to being slow, SCSI peripherals required the first and last device in the chain to have terminators and also had awkward switch settings that had to be manually set by the computer owner.

The FireWire port made its debut in January 1999 on the Power Mac G3 tower and was added to some iMacs later that year, as well as to the PowerBook and iBook notebook lines. Apple now uses the port on every machine it sells.

Today, FireWire is a key to Apple's aim of having the Mac serve as a digital hub for a variety of gadgets including digital camcorders, cameras and music players.

There are plans to take the IEEE 1394 standard further. Besides the speed bump that comes with 1394.b, there are also plans for a wireless version of the specification that would allow computers to use the IEEE 1394 standard to send data over wireless networks, such as those using the 802.11 standard.

Envisioneering's Doherty sees a bright future for FireWire, noting that in Japan nearly every digital gadget that costs more than $100 uses the 1394 standard. Although FireWire add-ons are less common in the United States, Doherty said he expects the ports to eventually become standard on most PCs.