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Intel snubs IEEE 1394 for USB 2.0

The phony war of the connectivity standards starts here

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Mainstream PC support for the FireWire connectivity system looks set to vanish following Intel's announcement at this week's Developer Forum that it is readying the next generation of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and a faster version of the ATA-66 interface. And Pat Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's desktop division, went as far as to claim FireWire, aka IEEE 1394, could quickly become a "niche" technology. Work on USB 2.0 has already begun and is set to offer a data transfer rate between 120 and 240Mbps, according to Gelsinger. Sources cited on various US newswires claimed the bus could reach 300Mbps. Even at the slowest figure, it marks a significant improvement on the current USB speed of just 12Mbps. Gelsinger went on to promise an initial spec. at next September's Intel Developers Forum and predicted PCs using the new bus would ship in the middle of 2000. The follow-up to ATA-66, dubbed Future ATA, was said to operate at up to 1Gbps. Intel isn't the only player here, said Gelsinger -- various other companies are working on the specification. "There's no other alternative I can see for in-the-box I/O storage," he added. So where does all this leave FireWire? Acording to Gelsinger, "1394 will play a role in connecting consumer electronics devices to the computer which can enhance those devices. But that's something of a niche, and it doesn't make sense to integrate that into our chip-sets." He also couldn't resist a dig at Apple, claiming the company's reported decision to charge a royalty for its FireWire intellectual property (see Apple caught charging crafty FireWire fee) had "confirmed our strategy" of "looking at a new version of USB". Apple recent decision to share the rights to that IP with five other key FireWire supporters, Compaq, Sony, Philips, Toshiba and Matsushita (see Apple caves in over FireWire licensing) hadn't resolved the royalty issue, he claimed. Compaq, for one, rejected Gelsinger's claims and said it remains committed to 1394. But if Intel pushes FireWire support out of the PCxx specification and replaces it with USB 2.0 and Future ATA, that's likely to leave Compaq in the minority. That said, it may not matter. While USB 2.0 will undoutedly appeal to manufacturers of traditional peripherals, such a printers, modems, scanners and perhaps even back-up devices. However, since these aren't really FireWire applications even now, USB 2.0 won't threaten 1394 too much either. And USB 2.0 is going to have to go some way to match the technical superiorities of 1394 that make it so suitable for high-end applications. Key to the coming battle will be consumer electronics devices, and this is perhaps the ace up FireWire's sleeve. USB 2.0 is essentially predicated on the idea that people want only to hook up traditional computer-oriented peripherals to their computers -- FireWire supporters believe they want to connect other devices too. Of course, that won't stop the consumer electronics adopting USB 2.0 if it's powerful enough and garners sufficiently widespread support among PC vendors, but FireWire has gained a heck of a lot of ground here. Much will depend on the likes of Apple, Compaq, Sony and co. now making 1394 easy and attractive to implement. ® See also Analysis: Apple's FireWire future

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