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Apple's FireWire Future

Why is Steve Jobs so keen to ape Sony? Think 'consumers'...

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Analysis Interim CEO Steve Jobs' recent claim that he wants Apple to emulate Sony's approach to designing and marketing computers shows that the company really has figured out it needs to think 'consumer' if it's to continue to grow in the long term. That doesn't mean simply punching out faster iMacs, though that's clearly part of the wider process, but considering what consumers, particularly those who don't yet own a computer, might want to do with a PC in the digital age. Jobs' interest in Sony, outlined this week in an interview with the Japanese business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, centre on the notable success the company has achieved with its Vaio notebook PC range. In the dark, depressed Japanese PC market, there have been just two stars: the Vaio and the iMac. According to the Japanese Electronics Industry Development Association (JEIDA), what little growth Japan's PC business experience came from new computer buyers, many of whom were attracted by those two machines. JEIDA estimates put iMac sales since its late-August launch at 120,000 units. Vaio sales in the last quarter of 1998 also reached 120,000 units. According to Jobs, the Vaio range has become a real 'must have' product for consumers because the machines themselves not only look great - something they share with the iMac - but they make it really easy to hook up and work with consumer electronics kit. For now, that's a big advantage over the Apple machine. Apple likes the Vaio approach for two reasons. In part, it validates the Mac maker's decision to drop serial ports and SCSI in favour of USB and, in particular, FireWire. Mostly, though, it highlights one of the routes Apple can take to win the hordes of new users it needs to attract to rebuild, perhaps even extend, the marketshare it has lost over the last four or five years. Now, Apple got into a little hot water earlier this year over allegations that it had begun charging PC vendors, peripherals suppliers and consumer electronics manufacturers a $1-a-port royalty on every FireWire-enable device they ship. Whether it was right to do so is a moot point. Apple invented the technology and despite submitting it to the IEEE as a standard (its official title is IEEE1394 - FireWire is just what Apple calls it; Sony's moniker is i.Link, for example), IEEE regulations allow the company to levy a royalty on its intellectual property. On the other hand, companies opposed to the levy claimed the fee would severely limit the technology's appeal to the wider computing and consumer electronics world. In fact, Apple was well within its rights to charge a licensing fee, and with FireWire already chosen by Intel and Microsoft in their PC2000 specification as the new standard high performance peripheral connectivity mechanism, PC and peripherals vendors would ultimately have to support if they were to maintain their products' Windows-compatibility certification. Besides, adding a couple of bucks to the prices of a high-speed hard drive isn't exactly going to break the bank. As it turned out, however, Apple's opponents appeared to win the day, and the Mac maker decided to share out its FireWire intellectual property with Compaq, Sony (that name again...), Matushita, Philips and Toshiba, probably under pressure from those very same companies, most of them among the technology's earliest adopters. The point is, in all the debate over FireWire licensing, the PC players who most openly criticised Apple's behaviour all viewed and continue to view the technology as a high-end one. So do the majority of their competitors. Years ago, even Apple did. When it comes to consumer-oriented systems, most vendors are more interested in USB, because not only is it more suited to 'consumer' peripherals like modems and printers, but it's free. However, that argument ignores the fact that the most common use of FireWire right now (and probably for the immediate future) is in digital camcorders and cameras, many of them aimed at mainstream consumer electronics markets. Editing digital video at home is clearly way easier than manipulating analog footage, and it can be done on an entry-level computer. Now, the next generation of iMacs due this summer and probably Apple's upcoming consumer portable, codenamed P1, will almost certainly sport FireWire ports. Quite apart from reassuring everyone who bought a Blue and White G3 that Apple's serious about FireWire, adding the technology to the consumer line-up will allow Apple to address the huge number of people who will be producing digital content on an amateur basis and will need some kind of computer to manipulate that content. Of course, they'll need software to encourage them to start playing around or even just to persuade them that they really can edit their home movies cheaply on a computer, and this is where Apple's initially nonsensical purchase of the Final Cut video editing utility from Macromedia finally clicks into place. And you thought Apple just wanted to annoy Adobe... In the quest for new users, Apple has to develop new ways of making its machines a more obvious choice than a Windows box, and that's going to have to go beyond the old 'easier to use' arguments. Building sexier boxes is one such a new method - so is leveraging high end technologies like FireWire into the consumer space. And with the Sony example in clear view, Apple can exploit both before its rivals follow suit. ®

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