Will USB 2.0 Cool Off FireWire?


By Charles Haddad What's in a wire? Plenty, in the case of Apple's FireWire. It's the technology that carries movies and music at high speeds over a thin cable between a computer and digital camcorders or MP3 players. Since 1999, Apple has set the standard for such high-volume, high-speed transport. FireWire is the crucial link in Apple's digital-hub strategy, positioning the Mac as the ideal depot for the storage and transfer of photos, music, and movies between various electronic devices.

This year FireWire will face its first serious contender. The challenger is USB 2.0, a major upgrade to the former champ in connection technology, which FireWire unseated. In the coming months, the two technologies will lock wires in a classic dust-up in the world of electronic devices. The marketing muscle behind USB will be pitted against the technical prowess of FireWire. Historically in such contests, marketing muscle has won most of the time, with Windows' success serving as the textbook example.

NO MIDDLEMAN. Consumers will decide the winner in the wire war. With the use of computers to edit home movies and store music becoming increasingly popular, consumers are the big market for high-speed digital-transfer technologies.

For the moment, FireWire has the advantage. Although USB 2.0 is slightly speedier, it lacks the versatility of FireWire, which can recharge devices such as an iPod digital-music player directly through your computer while transferring sound and video. And FireWire doesn't need a computer as a middleman or translator to talk with other electronic devices. For example, it allows you to connect a digital camera directly to a storage disk instead of having first to connect both to a PC.

FireWire has greater market penetration, too. Apple offered it as the industry standard several years back, and it has been widely adopted by manufacturers. Sony uses it under the brand name iLink. As of 2001, 60 million computers, only a fraction of which were Macs, shipped with FireWire connections. Manufacturers expect to ship an additional 40 million FireWire-enabled computers this year. In contrast, USB 2.0 has been adopted by only a handful of PC makers since its introduction in the middle of last year.

GIVING IT AWAY. So where's the contest? Well, an 800-pound gorilla just entered the ring on the side of USB. Intel has incorporated USB 2.0 into its newest chipsets, 845G and 845GL. Essentially, the giant chipmaker is giving away USB 2.0 as part of its new microprocessors. Such aggressive marketing has enabled Intel to establish as industry standards most of the technologies it adopts. Indeed, most industry observers expect 50 million PCs to ship with USB 2.0 this year.

Can't these PCs include both USB 2.0 and FireWire? Not necessarily. Think of the back panel of ports on a PC as a grocery shelf. It can hold only so much stuff. That's why the makers of Zip and other peripherals compete for the scarce available space on the back of computers as fiercely as Coke and Pepsi do in the supermarket.

Apple recognizes the emerging threat of USB 2.0. It's readying a new version of FireWire that doubles the transfer speed. The trade group that oversees FireWire, the 1394 Assn., has ratified the new version, and it's expected to hit the market by yearend.

REDUCED ROYALTY. The 1394 group has also won the right to market this high-speed technology for free under Apple's FireWire brand name and logo. That's quite an advantage over using the technology's official name, which is IEEE 1394. And Apple has slashed its royalty for use of FireWire to 25 cents from $1. I wouldn't be surprised if the royalty vanishes altogether in the near future, since Intel is giving away USB 2.0.

Apple needs FireWire to remain the standard. As the stylish alternative, Macs must work as seamlessly as possible with Wintel computers. Right now, FireWire enables video to flow easily between Macs and PCs. But USB 2.0, if it's successful, could raise a big gate locking Mac users out of the mainstream of digital-media computing. Haddad, Atlanta-based

correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow

his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only

on BusinessWeek Online


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