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Apple caught charging crafty FireWire fee

But at just $1 a port, what really is the fuss all about?

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Apple's decision to demand licence fees from PC, peripherals and consumer electronics companies for the use of the FireWire connectivity standard, has drawn much criticism. Unfortunately, there's been comensurate little understanding shown of the way this kind of thing actually works. Apple, of course, devised the technology in the first place, although it was quick to submit FireWire to the IEEE as a possible standard. And, indeed, it soon became one -- IEEE 1394, to be precise. That, say some observers, means Apple can't charge a licence fee. Well, it can, and the IEEE's regulations provide for this, as pointed out by Mac Web site Macintouch: "IEEE standards may include the known use of patent(s), including patent applications, if there is technical justification in the opinion of the standards-developing committee and provided the IEEE receives assurance from the patent holder that it will license applicants under reasonable terms and conditions for the purpose of implementing the standard." Apple's fee is said to be just $1 per FireWire port. Even allowing for multiple ports, this is will hardly increase the roduction cost of each peripheral dramatically. And given the kinds of high performance peripherals that are likely to use FireWire will invariably be high-end devices -- almost all cheap stuff like printers, scanners, modems and removable disk drives like Zips are probably better suited to USB -- a couple of bucks for two ports isn't actually a big deal, even if it's passed straight on to the buyer. You just charge $799 for your high-speed hard drive instead of $795. Consumer electronics companies are used to paying small (at least in per-unit terms) fees for technologies like Dolby noise reduction circuity, so, again, this isn't likely to negatively impact the manufacturing cost or retail price of gadgets. Concern that Apple's move may hinder the take-up of FireWire is, perhaps, a more valid consideration, but probably won't make much difference in the long run. The consumer electronics guys love FireWire for both its speed (400Mbps) and tiny form-factor. In the PC world, both Microsoft and Intel are committed to FireWire for future PCXX specifications for the same reasons. With FireWire the only currently viable standard as a successor to SCSI, it's unlikely that anyone's going to drop it just because Apple is asking $1 a pop. Apple might have a problem if someone comes up with a free alternative, but it could easily cease to charge for the technology happy in the knowledge it's gotten at least a year, probably two, of revenue stream out of it. And that's the point: FireWire has no rival. What held up the acceptance of USB, for example, was the fact that with serial and parallel ports readily available, why bother with a third? It took Apple's decision to drop serial ports in favour of USB to persuade peripheral manufacturers that it was worth supporting. USB is free, but licensing fees wouldn't have changed the situation much, just as it didn't stop all those SoundBlaster compatible sound cards or Hayes compatible modems. ®

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