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Apple to give away FireWire software

Aiming to spur adoption of the technology in consumer electronics, Apple will give away software that helps device makers add the high-speed port to their products.

Aiming to spur adoption of FireWire in consumer electronics, Apple Computer said Wednesday that it will give away software that helps device makers add the high-speed port to their products.

Apple's FireWire reference platform includes much of the technology that is needed to support FireWire from within a device such as a digital camera or an MP3 player. The technology in question comes from Apple's April acquisition of Zayante.

"This was part of Zayante's business. They sold this code to a variety of companies," said Jon Rubinstein, Apple's senior vice president of hardware engineering. "What we're doing is allowing people to save significant time and money."

The decision to give away the technology comes as FireWire is facing increased competition from USB 2.0. Apple has also moved in recent weeks to offer a free license of the FireWire name to those who adopt the port, also known by its technical name IEEE 1394. The new version of USB offers roughly similar speeds as FireWire and is becoming a standard on new PCs.

The number of USB 2.0-equipped PCs will quickly surpass the number of machines with FireWire as nearly all new PCs from major brands will include USB 2.0 by the end of the year, said In-Stat/MDR analyst Brian O'Rourke. Next year, nearly all new PCs will include USB 2.0, he said.

"It obviously makes them a very big competitor," O'Rourke said. "Maybe Apple is trying to preempt that to some extent."

More than 50 million PCs with FireWire connections have shipped so far, Rubinstein said.

PC makers continue to include the port on consumer desktops and increasingly in notebook computers, O'Rourke said. However, he said that desktops aimed at businesses are largely forsaking the FireWire port. Apple includes FireWire ports on all of its new Macs.

FireWire has a number of technical advantages over its newfound competitor, Rubinstein said, including its ability to carry more power to a peripheral and the ability of devices to talk directly to one another instead of requiring a PC.

However the latter advantage also adds cost, O'Rourke said, because devices using FireWire require more costly technology to handle the peer-to-peer exchange of data. Also, FireWire is more expensive for PC makers because USB 2.0 support is being built into new core logic chips, while FireWire requires an additional control chip.

Although USB recently got a speed bump, FireWire is not standing still. A faster version of the FireWire specification has been approved and is starting to show up in sample chips.

The software that Apple is providing device makers is compatible with both the current and future versions of the FireWire specification, Rubinstein said.

FireWire continues to dominate the video market for digital camcorders and other devices, a trend O'Rourke sees continuing on despite the arrival of USB 2.0. Because of its abilities to connect devices without requiring a PC, O'Rourke said the connection could also find its way into future home networking efforts, such as linking digital televisions and set-top boxes.