Speedy Firewire deserves more than a quick glance
first published in Business in Vancouver,
Issue #614, July 31, 2001 The high-tech office column
by ALAN ZISMAN
In some parallel universe, computers would be
Just plug your add-on device onto a port on the computer -- and it
In this universe, it hasn't been quite so simple.
had a SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") interface, which sort of worked as it
would in our fantasy, except that all too often it didn't.
PCs were worse, requiring popping open the case and
fussing with microscopic
jumpers and switches.
Lately, it's improved. PCs and Macs have started using
Bus, making it possible to plug up to 127 gizmos without even having to
turn the computer off. At least that's the theory.
The biggest limitation to USB has been bandwidth. Its
12 Mb/sec speed
must have seemed plenty fast when it was first designed. After all,
12 times as fast as a PC's parallel port and 100 times as fast as a
But as users started plugging even a few devices into
the same USB port,
that bandwidth quickly got used up. It's not a problem for slow devices
such as keyboards and mice. But network adapters or speakers easily hog
all that speed on their own. And then what happens when you try to scan
At the same time that USB was being developed, Apple
a different, but much more powerful standard. With bandwidth up to 400
Mb/sec, it has plenty of oomph for digital video, hard drives,
networking and other applications that are just too fast for USB. And,
like USB, it's easy to install devices, even hot-swapping them --
them in or out while the computer is running.
Despite its obvious appeal, the Apple standard has
been slower to catch
on. Some of that's due to its name. Or names. Apple calls it Firewire,
but that name is proprietary. Sony calls its version Ilink. Others
refer to it by the less-than-sexy IEEE 1394. To add to the confusion,
hasn't been built into PC motherboards and hasn't been supported by Microsoft's
operating systems. Although it would add only about $5 to the
cost of a PC (Apple charges a modest $0.25 licensing fee), the
PC industry has mostly ignored it, even though every digital camcorder
has been ready to connect to Firewire-capable computers for a couple of
And that has caused a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma:
haven't wanted to market Firewire gadgets when there were few
computers. And hardware manufacturers and Microsoft could safely ignore
the standard, citing a lack of devices and consumer demand.
As it earlier did with USB, Apple jumpstarted the
market. Hoping that
digital video would be the "killer app" that would boost hardware
they added Firewire across their product line, along with easy-to-use
production software called iMovie.
The result has been a sharp increase in availability
of all sorts of
Firewire devices (with both Mac and PC support): portable hard drives;
CD, DVD and other removable drives; scanners; and more. (See my Gear
column in this week's Currentz section for examples.) And
(excuse me, IEEE 1394) is starting to show up on PCs, desktops as well
as high-end notebooks. Look for Firewire (and USB) ports on the front
well as on the back, which is much more convenient if you're frequently
plugging and unplugging things such as video cameras.
You can also add Firewire to your existing PC or Mac.
cards (costing $150-$200) are easy to plug into most notebooks, and PCI
card versions (such as ATI's $79 DV Wonder) can add two or
Firewire ports to standard desktop PCs and Macs.
USB fans are fighting back, announcing a USB 2.0
standard with Firewire-like
speed. But that's still in the promises stage. Firewire is here now,
takes us several steps closer to that fantasy universe of easily