Apple Computer?s Firewire technology is finally coming into its own after years on the drawing board, but the hardware supplier now appears to want to license it to other vendors for money - much to their chagrin.
FireWire is Apple's version of the new IEEE 1394 serial bus standard for connecting devices to personal computers (PCs). The Digital VCR Conference has also accepted IEEE 1394 as its standard digital interface, while the European Digital Video Broadcasters group has endorsed the specification for use with digital television.
Although little used at the moment, Firewire promises users the ability to connect electronic devices such as digital TVs, cameras, PCs and stereo equipment to each other easily. Initially, it will appear as a means of attaching digital cameras and digital video applications to PCs, however.
In the world of video editing, Firewire removes the need for costly analogue video computer frame buffers to capture video. The aim is to use the technology to gradually improve existing interfaces such as SCSI because it provides higher speed data transfer at a lower cost and is more user friendly. Vendors are already evaluating when to include Firewire in SCSI products such as scanners, CD-Roms, disk drives and printers.
But FireWire also has enough bandwidth capacity to replace and even eliminate many other peripheral connection communication methods that are currently in use. Capabilities such as hot plugging, power sourcing and dynamic reconfiguration make it a user friendly alternative to today's interconnects, and make it as easy for users to "plug in" computer peripherals as to plug in a domestic appliance.
Since the technology is relatively new, however, market statistics are only beginning to surface.
According to Keith Waryas, a senior IDC analyst, certain industry segments such as digital video and digital cameras will have high Firewire adoption rates.
"This makes more sense than the printer market, for example, which is older technology evolving with better functionality and lower prices," he explains.
As a result, Waryas estimates that less than five per cent of this sector will adopt Firewire by 2002.
Steve Jobs, Apple's interim chief executive, said during last month's Macworld show, however, that "integrating Firewire as standard multiplies the expansion capabilities of our new Power Macintosh G3s, bringing new solutions like professional quality video editing within reach of millions of Macintosh customers."
He added that, with more than four million Firewire enabled digital video cameras sold over the last two years, the technology is revolutionising desktop digital video by enabling near broadcast quality video authoring at low consumer prices.
And, with prices falling below $1,000 on some models, the company expects more customers to start editing broadcast quality video on their systems.
While relatively few PC makers have incorporated Firewire ready ports into their new PCs until now, however, this trend is starting to change.
And Apple itself has potentially opened up a whole new market for the technology by offering built in support in new machines such as the Power Mac G3s. These all come with Firewire ports, and the company plans to phase out slower SCSI connections in future to speed customer migration.
SCSI ports have been the traditional means to connect external hard drives, scanners and other devices to a Mac, while customers have used the Universal Serial Bus (USB) to hook up low and medium speed peripherals to their PCs rather than open them up or load special software.
While USB has a bandwidth of 12Mb per second, this is too slow to handle the high data rates required for real time video, however.
Firewire, on the other hand, provides data transfer rates of up to 400Mb per second and can be expanded to 800Mb to support disk drives. It also offers guaranteed realtime transmission and is flexible enough to deal with multimedia applications.
And the Firewire standard is gaining momentum. More than 80 vendors already belong to the 1394 Trade Association founded in September, 1994, which includes Apple, Adaptec, AT&T, FujiFilm Microdevices, Matsushita, Philips Semiconductors, Sony, Texas Instruments and Toshiba.
Yet, according to Dick Davies, spokesperson for a trade association devoted to promoting Firewire, just as the prospects appear to be brightening for the technology, Apple has now begun charging new licensees about $1 "per port" instead of the former nominal flat fee.
The charge means that a Firewire enabled hard drive, for example, could cost $2 more than before if it has two connectors. And while the fees may seem small to users, they can translate into huge sums of money when devices like hard drives are shipped in large quantities.
"This licensing problem is now embedded in the legal department of Apple," Davies adds.
An Apple spokesperson says, however: "I'm not aware of any changes to the programme in place since it was adopted by IEEE in 1995. We have a fairly standard licensing program in place for Firewire, similar to Sony's for licensing MPEG and Dolby's for licensing audio. It covers more than 30 Apple patents."
But Davies explains that start ups interested in selling PC peripherals are likely to be the most affected by the licensing changes, even though these are the very companies that could potentially make FireWire commonplace in a new converged world.
Big league PC companies such as Compaq, Intel and Microsoft are, ironically, only indirectly affected, while current licensees of the technology such as Sony, Philips, IBM and Texas Instruments, which all make their own chips for IEEE 1394 devices, do not expect to see any changes in their licensing deals - most of which involved a one time, flat fee.
So, while few industry experts think Apple's decision will inhibit the growth of the market for Firewire enabled devices, they do believe its new licensing policy will have an impact and could further delay what has already been a slow rollout.
Davies says: "The view in the computer industry is that the new fee is a challenge, but is not stopping design because there is an ample supply of silicon."
And he adds that the standard is progressing all the time.
Firewire's speed of 400Mb per second is already four times faster than 100 BaseT Ethernet and is also available at rates of 800 Mb per second.
"Theoretically, without creating any performance or bottlenecks, you can move bits at up to 3.2 Gigabits per second. That is a way out, but the standard is under review and evolving all the time," Davies explains.
And he says Japan is one of the leaders in implementing such technology, with the US a close second. While Europe is dragging its feet a little, Dutch electronics giant, Philips, is also a strong promoter of Firewire and has a clear commitment to the technology.
"Its product development is well ahead of everyone in Europe, and it is an active member of the trade association. 1394 is not moving in Internet time, but it is inevitable and will be adopted," Davies adds.
So, while Firewire promises to potentially revolutionise the means of transporting digital data to computers and consumer electronics devices by providing an inexpensive, high speed method of interconnection, it would appear that Apple might do well to learn from its mistakes of the past and allow an open market to flourish without inhibition.
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