06 June 2005

Fire Wire

What is FireWire? According to the Apple Website:

FireWire is a cross-platform implementation of the high-speed serial data bus ...that can move large amounts of data between computers and peripheral devices. It features simplified cabling, hot swapping, and transfer speeds of up to 800 megabits per second (on machines that support 1394b).

Major manufacturers of multimedia devices have been adopting the FireWire technology, and for good reason. FireWire speeds up the movement of multimedia data and large files and enables easy connection of digital consumer products — including digital camcorders, digital video tapes, digital video disks, set-top boxes, and music systems — directly to a personal computer.

Standards have to be defined; there's an association of electronic engineers (IEEE) that develops these things, and they issued a series of articles that said how FireWire would work (1394a & b). If you're interested in a detailed technical introduction to FireWire, click the link above and scroll down to the end of the article for more links.

For those of you like me who just need to know the significance: there are two ways of transmitting data among microchips, serial and parallel. In serial, the bits flow along a single corridor, one after another. In parallel, there is one lane for each bit in the "word" and so a 64-bit computer (like the Intel L2 Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon) communicates with a 64-lane freeway. Wireless communication, of course, doesn't really allow for parallel transmission of data; it requires serial communication.

This was a big deal for Apple, whose Macintosh line uses serial pots for most peripherals. Apple was the main developer of FireWire, but unfortunately, stumbled somewhat over licensing the technology (Wikipedia). Since the 1990's, and the demise of SCSI, FireWire has made a comeback. This may have something to do with Apple's continued involvement (control) over the development of its peripherals, which has gotten it more and more closely connected to Sony and the consumer electronics industry.

If FireWire becomes the most popular format for serial buses, I imagine those devices not using it would have to convert rather quickly, since the market is less tolerant of oddball formats than it used to be. This would be a small, but important victory for Apple, Sony, and the consumer electronics mode of computer use.



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