By David S. Jones
"FireWire." Like so many innovative Apple technologies, even this product code name exuded a cachet signifying The Next Big Thing. But something happened a few years ago that suppressed the widespread support for FireWire in favor of the much lesser Universal Serial Bus (USB). FireWire has since found its niche in digital video cameras, but with the recent introduction of the new high-speed USB 2.0, many are now wondering aloud if FireWire will survive.
FireWire, more properly known as IEEE 1394
specification that governs its implementation, is a wonderful connectivity
standard for high-speed peripherals and media devices. Today it is the exclusive
standard for connecting digital video cameras to PC's and other video consumer
devices, and is branching out to printers, scanners, and hard drives.
What originally drew attention to FireWire is its ability to simultaneously
connect scores of devices with blazing speed: 100-200-400Mb/s throughput,
connecting up to 63 devices on one controller with cable lengths up to 4.5
meters (needs 'repeaters' beyond this cable length), supplying power to all
devices (up to 1.25A/12V max.), and peer-to-peer device communication without
external control from a PC.
In short, FireWire was, and still is, a hotrod technology.
By comparison, USB
was your father's Oldsmobile - slow and pokey 1.5Mb/s or 12Mb/s connection, good enough for mice, keyboards and printers, but barely adequate for anything else. Even those who had a ringside seat at the introduction of both technologies five years ago are a bit mystified why USB got the red-carpet treatment from the PC industry, yet FireWire was shown the door.
IEEE 1394 was firmly included in the "PC98" specification, the agreed-upon plan promulgated by Intel, Microsoft, and the major PC OEMs that defines exactly what technologies are to be included in major PC hardware and software releases. The entire industry and marketplace understood that a FireWire implementation was to be a standard feature on consumer and business PCs, and readied itself for the massive changeover that would occur when FireWire became the new standard for connecting, well, everything.
This expectation was not without some basis in fact. FireWire was hyped as the high performance cure for everything from dropped frames to lost packets. Intel and Microsoft developers claimed that the IEEE 1394 spec would soon replace serial ports, parallel ports, mouse ports, keyboard connectors, replace IDE and SCSI in drive subsystems, make the PCI bus obsolete, would replace Ethernet networking and TV cabling - even become part of the standard wiring built into new homes.
Many no-nonsense companies joined in, investing heavily in a FireWire future in the expectation that digital video cameras and desktop video editing would become as popular as desktop publishing. So what happened?