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Compaq marries PCs, consumer devices

A rejuvenated technology may prove to be the missing link between PCs and consumer electronics, and systems vendors including Compaq Computer and Texas Instruments plan to deploy it in new PCs starting the second half of this year.

An "old" technology that has caught fire in the last few months may prove to be the missing link between PCs and consumer electronics, and top-tier PC vendors, including Compaq Computer and Texas Instruments, are planning computers for the second half of this year based on this technology.

Called the IEEE 1394, the specification is expected to spawn PCs that accommodate newly developed consumer electronics devices such as digital camcorders and digital VCRs. The technology, which also goes by the name FireWire, has been around for a while, but now appears to have been "reborn."

Users, for example, will be able to plug camcorders and VCRs directly into their PC for both personal entertainment and business-use production environments, said analysts and vendors.

"This is big. There has been a snowballing effect [in the last few months]. This is the right [technology] choice for high-speed and high-performance...for video cameras and consumer electronics," said Bob Jackson, a vice president at Compaq.

Compaq has slated this technology for new models in its consumer line of Presario PCs, likely to appear late this year.

Microsoft is also an active proponent of the technology and will support 1394 "in future releases of the Microsoft Windows family of operating systems," company officials said recently.

"IEEE 1394 enables high-performance multimedia connections [with] camcorders, televisions, stereos, CD changers, set-top boxes, mixing consoles and music keyboards, as well as traditional PC devices," Microsoft said in a white paper detailing support for the technology.

Currently, connecting these kinds of devices is, at the very least, cumbersome. "There is a very immediate benefit to users. Right now these connections are very ugly and proprietary. Configuring and setting up multimedia systems will be much easier," said Dean McCarron, a principal at Mercury Research, a Tempe, Arizona-based marketing research firm.

The 1394 connection technology supports plug-and-play hook-up of devices so, for instance, a camcorder would be automatically configured when it's plugged in.

Sony is also jumping in as a major supporter by way of its development of digital camcorders with a 1394 interface. Moreover, Sony looks to 1394 as a way to integrate consumer electronics capabilities into future hybrid computers, according to recent statements by officials.

McCarron cautions, however, that the new digital camcorders and some of the other peripheral devices that take advantage of this new connection technology will not be readily available at reasonable prices until 1997.

But Texas Instruments is doing its part to bring the technology to users as quickly as possible. The company has begun to make chips to enable the technology and will follow this up later in the year with notebook PCs with 1394 ports, the company said.

Digital Equipment has also jumped on the 1394 bandwagon, though it's not clear yet what it will do with the technology.

One of the other benefits of 1394 will manifest itself in notebook PCs. Compaq said that 1394 will be the enabling technology for "multibay" designs in notebook PCs.

As Compaq describes it, future notebooks will have two open bays that can interchangeably accept "hot-pluggable" CD-ROM drives (and later DVD drives), floppy drives, hard disk drives, and batteries. Hot-pluggable devices can be removed and inserted without turning the computer off.