What do you call an interface that blazes along at 400Mbit/s, operates without the need for a PC, and could unite IT and consumer electronics in the dream of convergence? Sony calls it iLink, technicians call it 1394, Apple calls it FireWire and, judging by what I've seen in the past week, I'd call it dead.
I've just been to the Intel Developers' Forum (IDF), a biannual get-together for the people who design chipsets and write the code that makes our world go round. While the technical sessions remain in full-swing, IDF has matured into a hotbed of news and gossip.
Relatively overshadowed by the big guns of IA-64 Merced and ever-quicker Pentiums, I discovered several developments that could spell the end of 1394. The big announcement was USB 2, a backwards and forwards compatible standard which raises the 12Mbit/s rate of USB 1.1, at present to the dizzy heights of between 360 and 480Mbit/s. Apparently, it's relatively simple to attain speeds of up to 500Mbit/s, so they decided to aim for the upper limit. So it's just a coincidence then that USB 2 is now directly comparable, nay, slightly faster - than 1394, in the good old numbers game.
Now, does anyone remember Device Bay? This was an idea for future PCs to feature large slots into which recent drives or devices could simply be popped in or out for easy expansion. The proposal used two hot-swappable interfaces - USB and 1394, the latter supplying the raw power. Now, if USB can go at 400Mbit/s, do we need 1394 at all for Device Bay? I took a tour around Intel's pavilion, packed full of concept PCs, and almost all featured a Device Bay type of expansion capability, and guess what?
They all employed USB as its sole interface.
If this sounds like bad news for 1394, then consider its unique selling point - it can operate peer to peer, with two devices talking to each other without the need for a PC in the middle. This has made it the digital interface of choice for consumer products such as DV Camcorders. But rewind a moment, 1394 doesn't require a host computer - USB always will. Can you think of a company that solely relies on the sales of computers?
It would be unfair to blame Intel for the possible demise of 1394. In its defence, Intel claims it makes the building blocks for PCs, and then it's up to the industry and public to vote with their wallets. But I couldn't help but feel sorry for the 1394 trade association, huddled in the corner, with the appearance of making a last stand. Okay, they had a Flex ATX motherboard from Asus with on-board 1394 but, otherwise, it was the same old DV Camcorder demo. They even had T-shirts with tick boxes for a PC99 specification - guess which one had been left unticked? I almost burst into tears.
Don't get me wrong - I love 1394, but fear its future is limited to DV camcorders and Apple computers, rather than being the Holy Grail of home networks. Oh, and in case you're wondering, after sitting through hours of equations, scatter plots and decay graphs, it would appear that three radio technologies inhabiting the same space cunningly hop between frequencies and just go a wee bit slower than normal.
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