By Any Name, FireWire Has a Sizzling Future

Peter Coffee: Apple's trademark has caught on with the 1394 Trade Association. Now the "IEEE 1394" connection standard, as I prefer to call it, is ripe to catch on with anyone running high-bandwidth applications between devices.

As high-speed hardware cognoscenti converge for 1394 DevCon, taking place this week at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., its ironic that the 1394 Trade Association has just adopted Apples "FireWire" name for its future marketing and compliance labeling. Thats one more arrow in the quiver for those who say that Apple innovates, while Microsoft assimilates.

Theres much more than new labeling to make IEEE 1394 (I just cant stop calling it that) a compelling option for bandwidth-intensive applications. In addition to the 400M-bps throughput and distributed control that makes FireWire so useful for digital video editing, the emerging 1394b update adds capacity—up to 800 megabits/second initially, and eventually up to 3.2 gigabits/second. It extends the range of a 1394 link to 100 meters over CAT-5 cable or plastic optical fiber, and sets distance standards for other transmission media including glass optical fiber and shielded twisted pair (STP).

As our automobiles become more densely networked environments, FireWires compact combination of content and control makes it attractive for mobile platform applications: It will be interesting to see what comes out of the automotive working group sessions at the 1394 Trade Association meeting in Montreal next month. On more familiar IT ground, this May saw the introduction of a chip set for the Athlon XP that integrates a 1394 host controller—further enhancing the Athlon XP as the processor of choice for high-performance Windows applications.

Personally, I use the high-speed 1394 serial connection most often between a Canon camcorder and a Sony PC. I hope that the new FireWire branding doesnt carry too much Apple baggage, which might perversely detract from a hard-won vendor-neutral image. But I have to concede the official last laugh to all those Apple enthusiasts who castigated me last year, when I praised this peer-to-peer bus technology without mentioning Apples leading role in its development and promotion. As of this month, theyre right: It is properly called FireWire, not just on Apple hardware, but everywhere.

And even though I prefer the vendor-neutral aura of a standards organization label like "IEEE 1394," theres no question that Apple has coined the most engaging brand for this interface; the general adoption of Apples trademark probably begins a fade to black for Sonys less catchy (but technically compatible) "i.Link".

Moreover, Ive also learned—the hard way—not to assume that IEEE 1394 compliance is a uniform guarantee of usability. It may take more than a connector and a chip set to make FireWire work as well on a Windows PC as it already does on a Macintosh. Next week, Ill tell you how the Fates conspired to teach me that lesson.

Tell me what gets you fired up.