Where’s the FireWire?

It was a small packaging decision, but it touched off quite a debate. When Apple Computer Inc. announced a new line of its popular iPod digital media gadgets in February, the company decided not to include cables for the FireWire interface, also known as IEEE 1394.

Let’s be clear:

Apple didn’t drop FireWire support from iPods. The company simply stopped including a cable – worth around $10 – that came with previous iPod models. Consumers now have to buy the cable separately. However, a cable for the Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface still comes with the new iPods. That was enough to start speculation that FireWire is beginning to be pushed aside by USB’s growing popularity.

That was probably an over-reaction. Apple’s move may indicate that USB is gaining ground on FireWire as a preferred interface for iPods, but both USB and FireWire have a variety of uses. The interface still has a place alongside USB, says Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research.

Dick Davies, a spokesman for the 1394 Trade Association – the industry group for manufacturers of FireWire-related products – says FireWire is strong in the computer market. It is especially popular on Apple’s Macintosh line, but FireWire interfaces are also found on around a third of all desktop PCs running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows and on 65 to 75 per cent of Windows-based notebooks, he says.

“A lot of people are taking graphics on the road with them,” Davies says, “and they want to be able to move those things around.”

FireWire is widely supported on PCs, Wilcox agrees, but he says USB is even stronger in that market. Virtually all Windows PCs have USB connectors. A typical Windows notebook might have one FireWire port and two to four USB ports, Wilcox points out. So in this market, USB dominates.

Consumer electronics is a different matter. “There has been a very, very consistent upward trend in the adoption of FireWire there,” says Davies. Digital video cameras and other such devices are much more likely today to have FireWire than USB interfaces. Digital still cameras are an exception – USB is more common on them – but in general, FireWire dominates.

Even here, though, USB is making inroads. “1394 was initially very, very good in streaming video,” says Jeff Ravencraft, president and chairman of the USB Implementers Forum – the industry group representing makers of USB-related products. Its original version transferred data at up to 400 megabits per second, while the first version of USB could only handle 12 megabits. A newer version, USB 2.0 raised that limit to 480 megabits per second. There’s also a faster version of FireWire now – known as FireWire 800 or IEEE 1394.b, it boosts the speed to 800 megabits. The point is, either USB 2.0 or FireWire has adequate speed for video transfers today.

And USB is getting a piece of that action. “USB 2 is definitely gaining traction in device areas where FireWire dominated,” Wilcox says.

FireWire has also penetrated other markets. In the automotive sector, Davies says, it is attracting interest as a way of transferring digital media around a vehicle – at least two Japanese automakers, Toyota and Nissan, are exploring its use in rear-seat entertainment consoles. Second, it is being used in factory automation, for communication among industrial robots, mostly in Europe. And finally, says Davies, FireWire is finding a niche in aviation, for communication among cockpit devices.

Still, there is no doubt USB has made a lot of headway. “USB has been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” says Ravencraft. Wilcox says that if it came down to a choice between USB and FireWire, USB would win out. But, he says, there is no need to choose. “As long as manufacturers believe that it is cheap enough to ship both, they’ll continue to do so,” he says. After all, USB can theoretically replace dedicated connectors for PC keyboards, mice and printers, but most PCs still ship with the specialized connectors.

FireWire and USB may both face competition from wireless interfaces, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Wilcox says either wireless standard could be used for communication between computers and their peripherals. Not to be outdone, the FireWire and USB camps are both working on their own wireless offerings.

In fact, the two groups are working together on a common radio interface that could serve both wireless USB and wireless FireWire. That will bring the two standards somewhat closer together, Ravencraft says, though he stresses that it does not mean they will merge. The protocols remain distinct, and Ravencraft likens the common radio interface to the telephone over which many different languages can be spoken. “At the application level I think long term those are going to remain separate,” he says. However, the convergence does mean manufacturers could use a single radio to support both FireWire and USB. That could help keep it economical to support both.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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