What's in a name? For FireWire, plenty

What Apple traditionally sold under the FireWire trademark has also been pitched as i.Link and IEEE 1394, but fresh competition is forcing the company to rethink its marketing.

5 min read
For several years, Apple Computer's FireWire has been the leading means of providing high-speed connections between computers and digital devices, but fresh competition is forcing the company and other backers to rethink how they market the technology.

What Apple has traditionally sold under the FireWire trademark has also been pitched as i.Link and even under its technical name, IEEE 1394. That multiple identity has interfered with efforts to sell consumers on the benefit of using the connection to link PCs with add-ons such as digital cameras and camcorders.

On Wednesday, the 1394 Trade Association, the group charged with licensing and promoting the standard, announced a deal with Apple that will allow the group to market and license the FireWire name along with the underlying technology. And for the first time, the group will also push companies using the technology to adopt the FireWire moniker, although it is not forcing them to do so.

"Numbers don't work," said 1394 Trade Association President James Snider. "Names work, and the FireWire name just sticks."

With FireWire facing increased competition from USB 2.0 and various other connection technologies in the struggle for a port on the back of a PC, the group needs all the marketing power it can get.

"There's some pressure there," said 1394 spokesman Dick Davies. "It's a race to the socket there between USB 2.0 and 1394."

Apple developed FireWire for its own products in the mid-1980s but decided to propose it as an industry standard to broaden its use.

From 1999, when the FireWire port began showing up on mainstream PCs, through the end of last year, about 60 million PCs shipped with the socket. Another 40 million PCs with a FireWire port are expected to ship this year, Snider said.

But industry powerhouse Intel has given rival USB 2.0 a shot in the arm.

Although USB 2.0 devices have been on the market since the middle of last year, Intel's new 845G and 845GL chipsets are the first to directly support the standard, paving the way to make the new version of USB devices cheaper and more widespread.

"When Intel puts something in the chipset, it has an excellent historical track record of becoming a standard," said Richard Doherty an industry analyst at Envisioneering.

Market research firm In-Stat/MDR is predicting that more than 50 million PCs will ship with USB 2.0 support in 2002, most in the second half of the year and most using the new Intel chipsets.

The chipsets "basically allow PC manufacturers to add USB 2.0 for free," said In-Stat/MDR analyst Brian O'Rourke.

ports comparison chart While Apple developed much of the FireWire technology, the trade group is responsible for promoting its adoption by consumers and computer makers.

In January, Apple saw the benefit of establishing a unified identity for the technology and proposed allowing the trade group to have broader access to the FireWire name.

"We've certainly seen (the FireWire name) become more and more used," said Tom Boger, director of Power Mac product marketing for Apple. "It was actually the answer to a question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

FireWire by any other name
The name game is not likely to end completely, however. Despite the popularity of the FireWire label in the United States and Europe, Snider noted that the i.Link name has caught on in some places, especially Japan. Companies in those regions may continue using that name if they wish. Also, the trade group says it is keeping its name for now.

"We are a technology trade group," Snider said. "People in the tech industry understand 1394." Plus, he added, "We don't want the i.Link crowd to feel like we are casting aspersions."

FireWire is billed as having a top performance of 400mbps, compared with 480mbps for USB 2.0. The original version of USB ran at a comparatively poky 12mbps and was less well suited for high-speed tasks such as shuttling data to and from a hard drive or a CD burner.

Despite USB's increased speed, though, FireWire still has a number of benefits, backers say. In addition to carrying data, it can serve as a power cord, handling enough juice to recharge the battery on a portable device. USB is more limited as a power source, ample for a mouse, say, or a keyboard. Another benefit of FireWire devices is that, unlike gadgets using USB, they can talk to each other without a PC serving as middleman.

But there's likely to be a split in the market for some time.

"USB is more affordable, but there are tens of millions of products that have FireWire, and that's called inertia," Doherty said.

Consumers will play a big part in determining the eventual winners in the high-speed connection market, Doherty said, because consumers, not businesses, snap up most of the gear that benefits from the faster speeds.

FireWire is due for a speed bump of its own. The trade group has ratified a new version, 1394b, that doubles the speed of the technology. Although chipmakers have begun making the necessary silicon, products using the device are still in the labs. Snider says to expect the first products using the faster technology to show up by the end of the year.

Boger declined to say when Apple might move to the faster version.

While nearly all PC makers now include FireWire ports on some machines, Apple has been the most widespread adopter of the technology, first using it in January 1999 on the Power Mac G3 tower and now offering it as a standard on every new Mac. The port is also central to Apple's digital hub strategy of connecting to devices such as digital cameras, camcorders, and potentially other living room devices such as digital televisions.

In April, Apple acquired Zayante, a maker of FireWire chips.

FireWire is also the star of Apple's iPod digital music player, allowing an entire CD to be transferred from a Mac to the iPod in about 10 seconds.

"Certainly the success of the iPod was a showcase of what a FireWire product can do and the advantages it has over other ports," Boger said.