Will USB or FireWire connect with consumers?

A drama is unfolding around high-speed standards for connecting computing devices, with an Intel-led coalition on one side and Apple on the other.

5 min read
The movie version could be titled "Showdown at the High-speed Corral."

Whatever it's ultimately called, a drama is unfolding around high-speed standards for connecting computing devices, with an Intel-led coalition on one side and Apple Computer on the other.

Who wins the slugfest could determine whether USB 2.0 or IEEE 1394 emerges as the dominant means of connecting peripherals and other devices to PCs.

The current version of USB, or universal serial bus, has largely supplanted older serial and parallel ports for connecting peripherals, such as printers and scanners, to PCs. But USB's relatively slow data transfer speed of 12 megabits per second (mbps) has limited its use for demanding tasks, such as transferring video from digital camcorders to PCs. USB 2.0, by contrast, transfers data at up to 480 mpbs.

IEEE 1394, the more established high-speed connectivity technology developed by Apple, transfers data at up to 400 mpbs.

When USB 2.0 will reach the market en masse and how it will compete against IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, is uncertain. Those delays mean FireWire may not be displaced by USB 2.0, as previously projected, and quite possibly could slow down the adoption of USB 2.0.

Both connectivity options have much going for them.

USB 2.0 builds on the success of USB 1.1, which is present on 99 percent of PCs shipping today, according to research firm Cahners In-Stat Group. The company forecasts that by 2004, there will be 750 million USB-equipped PCs and peripherals in use. Last year, USB was included in 54 percent of video cameras and 38 percent of scanners sold. By 2004, Cahners In-Stat expects 88 percent of scanners to feature USB.

FireWire's adoption pales by comparison. Cahners forecasts only 112 million FireWire-equipped PCs and peripherals in use by 2004. Storage and printers will make up the bulk of FireWire peripherals, with about 12 million and 11 million units, respectively.

Gartner analyst Kevin Knox says he is "pretty positive on USB 2.0 and what it's going to do in the market," adding that the technology will win adherents by being compatible with current USB devices. "Quite frankly, the most important feature is backward compatibility with USB," he said.

USB 2.0 delays
While USB 2.0 looks good on paper and is backed by industry giants--Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, NEC and Philips Electronics--delays getting the technology to market could be costly.

Cahners analyst Robyn Bergeron said Intel isn't expected to deliver the core-logic chipsets enabling USB 2.0 to work on PCs until the third quarter of 2001, with third-party chipsets following two to three quarters later. That makes USB 2.0 potentially a 2002 technology in any significant volume, while PC and peripheral makers today increasingly look to FireWire to solve immediate data transfer problems.

Until recently, only Apple and Sony offered FireWire in any significant way, with both companies including the technology on virtually every PC and portable they sell. Compaq has offered FireWire for more than two years but generally on higher-end consumer PCs or workstations.

More recently, Dell Computer and Gateway have jumped into the FireWire fray, with Gateway including IEEE 1394 on some Solo 9300 portables and Dell on the Inspiron 8000 notebook. Dell also has been pushing what it calls digital "movie studio" PCs featuring FireWire cards and video editing software from MGI.

Peripheral makers are taking FireWire more seriously, particularly those focusing on scanners or storage.

While companies have made do with USB for CD-RW drives and hard drives, the technology "is basically being misused as a low-cost storage interface," said Paul Deckers, FireWire product manager for storage device maker OnStream.

For data storage, OnStream views FireWire as the best connectivity option currently available.

"The way we see it, USB is not a storage interface," Deckers said. "It's an interface that was meant to replace slow (input/output connections), such as on printers swapping out parallel for USB. FireWire was specifically designed for storage. It has the bandwidth to do fast storage, and with the ever-increasing amounts of storage, speed and high bandwidth are essential."

Bergeron agreed that the current version of USB comes up short for storage devices, such as CD-RW drives.

"USB drives for my Mom are probably OK, but I would have a problem waiting around for a few years," she said.

Storage makers are increasingly backing FireWire in a big way, many moving beyond the Mac market, where FireWire's appeal is strongest. Maxtor, for example, recently introduced an 80GB external FireWire drive.

Until recently, FireWire appealed more to the consumer electronics crowd, becoming a near-standard feature on digital camcorders. The transfer rate is fast enough for viewing movies in real time.

Speed race to market
Gartner's Knox says that USB 2.0 is plenty fast for video, and he expects both connectivity options to appear on digital camcorders and other consumer electronic devices. But FireWire could be faster by the time USB 2.0 is available, with Apple expected to bump the speed to 800 mbps sometime next year.

Some peripheral makers are not so sure USB 2.0 will easily beat out FireWire, particularly as the connectivity technology appears on more and more PCs, consumer electronics devices and peripherals.

"FireWire has the benefit for high-bandwidth devices, because it was designed as a high-bandwidth interface," said Robert Ozankan, product manager for graphics arts and scanners at printer maker Epson. "There are millions of camcorders out there with FireWire built in them, and that lead is significant."

While USB is Epson's main connectivity option for scanners and printers, the company now offers FireWire models and has plans for more.

Deckers said there are two issues that could affect how well USB 2.0 does against FireWire.

"One, how far does FireWire get into the PC market before USB 2.0 is really available and standardized," he said. "Two, at what price does USB come in?"

If USB 2.0 peripherals cost about the same as USB 1.1 and "FireWire can't get its prices down because it can't get enough volume, then USB 2.0 has a big chance of being the interface that wins," he said.

In the end, FireWire may take the lead for storage devices, scanners, video cameras and consumer electronic devices, while USB continues to dominate mice, keyboards and other peripherals.