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Philips, others to support Apple standard

Major high-tech firms have agreed to support the 1394 digital interface developed by Apple and will form a patent pool to implement it.

Major computer and consumer electronics companies have lined up with Apple Computer in a patent cross-licensing accord to promote technologies for connecting digital devices.

Apple, along with the world's largest consumer electronics companies--Philips, Matsushita, Sony, Toshiba--and the worlds largest PC maker, Compaq Computer, said they have formed a patent pool and will create a licensing program to promote the use of an emerging high-speed, "plug and play" connection technology formally known as IEEE 1394. It is also referred to by the name that Apple originally gave it: "Firewire."

Increasingly, IEEE 1394 is being touted--and used--as a means to connect a variety of digital devices, from camcorders, stereos, DVD players, cable set-top boxes to PCs and more. Already, the participants said, over three million camcorders with the interface have been sold.

The companies are also trying to move the industry to use FireWire as a universal interface for peripherals such as storage drives, CD-ROM drives, and DVD drives. FireWire can transfer data at rates of up to a relatively quick 400 mbps (million bits per second).

More important, FireWire makes it easy to hook up devices like digital camcorders, thus encouraging new uses for the PC--and new reasons to buy more systems.

"We believe that this alliance will ensure acceptance of this standard throughout the personal computer and consumer electronics industries by making the licensing of the key technologies easy and affordable," said Jerry Meerkatz, vice president of Compaq's Commercial Desktop Division in a statement.

Today's announcement of a patent pool "to efficiently license patents required to implement the standard" appears to put to rest growing industry concerns over Apple's plans for boosting its licensing fees, as first reported by CNET News.com.

"This is what we had expected and hoped for. Its very constructive, and it keeps 1394 on a strong development path," said James Snyder, chairman of the 1394 Trade Association.

FireWire, invented by Apple, is a networking standard recognized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1995. Standards bodies generally require the underlying intellectual property be licensed at "reasonable and fair" terms. Late in 1998, Apple (while leaving current licensees unaffected) began talking to potential licensees about higher fees. Some in the PC industry were worried that by increasing its licensing fees for FireWire technology, Apple's moves would further delay what has already been a slow rollout.

To date, relatively few PC makers have incorporated FireWire-ready ports into new PCs, while Microsoft only began supporting it with Windows 98, but that trend is starting to change. Apple, Compaq, and Sony recently introduced consumer computers with 1394 connectors.

Industry sources said PC companies, including Compaq, were balking at having to hew to Apple's demands.

"This means that the PC people who did not want to license anything from Apple at any price, don't have to worry about that," said one source familiar with the negotiations.

One beneficial side effect of the licensing arrangement is that development of a higher speed version of 1394 that transmits data at 800 mbps and above could well be accelerated. Sources say that engineers working on a follow-on standard were spending most of their time trying to develop technology while using as little of Apple's intellectual property as possible. Now, instead, they can build on the same technology base used by the current standard, hopefully saving time in the process.