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Apple tries software spark to ignite Firewire

Posted: 13 Aug 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:universal serial bus? firewire? embedded real time data transfers? interconnect? usb?

Trying to ignite more market activity around the Firewire serial peripheral interface it helped define, Apple Computer Inc. will provide a free software stack to device makers implementing the high-speed interconnect. Better known as 1394, the interface was once expected to have broad application across a wide variety of computer and consumer systems but in recent years has not gained as much momentum as the Universal Serial Bus.

Apple hopes the release of its FireWire Reference Platform will help enable broader use of the interconnect in computer peripherals and consumer devices. The software is based on a product that Apple acquired with its purchase of Zayante Inc., a 1394 developer, in April.

"We see a tremendous growth potential for Firewire on the host, peripheral, and consumer devices side," said Jon Rubinstein, vice president of hardware engineering at Apple. The consumer electronics sector is shaping up as the key battleground for the two interfaces.

About 50 million systems, including most current models of Apple's computers and about 10 million digital video cameras, now use the 400Mbps 1394a version of the interface. However, nearly 400 million systems have been shipped with the 12Mbps USB 1.1, including virtually all PCs and many digital still cameras, and MP3 players sold over the past two years. PCs have started a transition to the 480Mbps USB 2.0, which Intel Corp. is supporting in its latest desktop chip sets.

Camera connection

Although 1394 is used in almost all digital video cameras, Hitachi is expected to demonstrate in September a digital video camera that will use USB 2.0. Moreover, although USB dominates in digital still cameras and MP3 players, Apple's popular iPod portable music player uses Firewire; Rubinstein said that several digital still camera makers are considering 1394 as their megapixel-resolution capabilities increase. "The two technologies will coexist," said Rubinstein, noting that 1394 is capable of guaranteed delivery of multimedia data.

"The industry is now saiding USB is comparable [to], if not better in some spaces than, 1394," countered an Intel spokesman.

Rubinstein noted that chips for the 800Mbps 1394b version of the standard are now being sampled. And the technology has a road map taking it up to 3.2Gbps. "Imagine what you can do with a pipe that wide and guaranteed multimedia delivery," Rubinstein said.

Cost concerns continue to favor use of USB for some applications. Rubinstein said it costs about $40 to outfit a PC with 1394, but USB 2.0 now comes essentially free in core logic chipsets from Intel. However, industry watchers expect that 1394 will be used widely in digital TVs and STBs.

USB first gained traction over 1394 in the late 1990s when intellectual-property disputes laid royalties of as much as $1 per port on 1394 in addition to Firewire trademark royalties from Apple. However, now 1394 users pay only 25 cents per system to the 1394LA patent pool organization and Apple grants use of the Firewire trademark for free.

Apple's FireWire Reference Platform software runs on a variety of computer and embedded RTOS. It supports bus management, configuration, transactions, and real-time data transfers.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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