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Intel lends weight to FireWire

The technology is designed for high-speed transfer of large amounts of data from peripherals such as digital camcorders to a PC.

Like an entertainer playing the club circuit, technology that bridges the gap between the consumer electronics and computing worlds makes the rounds each year at Comdex in Las Vegas.

This year will be no exception. Intel will demonstrate a prototype PC circuit board called "Digital Creativity" with IEEE 1394, or "Firewire," support at the 1394 Trade Association's booth at Comdex.

The IEEE 1394 standard is a technology originally developed by Apple to allow for high-speed transfer of large amounts of data from peripherals such as digital camcorders to a computer.

The technology is significant because it spans the gap between consumer electronics devices and PCs. It also makes working with computers more like using a stereo system or TV because peripherals don't need to be configured: Theoretically, a consumer just needs to plug them in, and they are ready to work.

At Comdex, Intel will show a FireWire digital video camcorder hooked up to its PC platform for use in capturing, editing, and sharing digital video. Similar applications were shown at Comdex last year too, although this go-round will be one of the first times Intel has shown that it has incorporated the technology directly onto its own "motherboard" circuit board designs. A motherboard is the main circuit board in a PC and holds almost all the core electronics.

Both Microsoft and Intel are moving to use FireWire as a universal interface for peripherals such as storage drives, CD-ROM drives, DVD drives, and consumer electronics products. This is because FireWire can transfer data at rates of up to 400mbps, compared to 12mbps for Universal Serial Bus (USB) connectors, now commonly found on newer PCs.

Before the technology will find widespread adoption, however, both companies have to coordinate efforts for moving the technology into the platform.

Microsoft earlier this year announced specifications that would allow hardware vendors to create and incorporate peripheral devices into new computer systems, but this still leaves vendors the job of making the necessary software that enables the Windows operating system to control the devices.

"It's on Intel's roadmap as an important external bus, it seems to have their blessing, and that's an important endorsement for any industry initiative," says Andy Fischer, senior analyst at Jon Peddie Associates.

"The last two years at Comdex there have been FireWire [product] showcases, but it is in the high-end or 'prosumer' video production category. It's still a bolt-on [do-it-yourself] technology. There are all sorts of devices that want to be hooked up to a high-speed interface, but it [FireWire] won't be pervasive until its integrated on both the hardware and software side," he said.

Apple is already offering support in the Mac operating system for devices using IEEE 1394, although there aren't yet machines incorporating hardware ports yet.

Intel will also be showing off Device Bay technology, which would allow users to plug a variety of devices such as a DVD drive or TV tuner into an external receptacle called a bay. Peripherals adhering to the specification such as backup storage devices, DVD drives, and hard drives would simply plug into a desktop or portable PC connector and automatically configure themselves without restarting the computer, which is often the case with PCs today.

Although FireWire-based products continue to hold a great degree of promise, they won't begin to proliferate in systems until the end of the decade, Fischer estimates.