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MS cools to USB 2.0, warms to 1394

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Microsoft's support for USB appears to be not quite as warm as it once was, if comments made by Carl Stork, the Beast of Redmond's general manager for Windows Hardware Strategy, are anything to go by.

'Interviewed' by his own company's PressPass 'journalists', Stork says he - and, by extension, Microsoft - reckons that the future of Windows XP connectivity is IEEE 1394, and not the second generation of old chum Intel's Universal Serial Bus as you might well expect.

1394 is certainly a new feature for the PC, finally ushered in with Windows XP, the theme of Stork's talk, although offered as an option long ago in the PC 2000 spec. Microsoft promised 1394 support way back in 1996, with Sony's help. Since then, Chipzilla has acknowledged - just about - the advantages of 1394, but has always preferred to push USB as the de facto standard for PC connectivity. And with USB 2.0 pushing the bus' bandwidth to beyond the 1394's current specification, Intel's spin has very much been that USB is for the PC world, 1394 for consumer electronics, with the two meeting only in high-end PCs for video editing and the - sniff - Apple arena.

Stork's line suggests that Microsoft no longer sees digital video as a high-end application. Like Apple, it now thinks it's going to be a key consumer application too - Stork even refers to 1394 by Apple's own codeword for the transport, FireWire. He also waxes lyrical about the 802.11 wireless networking standard that forms the basis of Apple's AirPort system. Clearly, Redmond reckons Steve Jobs is onto something here and is out to embrace and extend his strategy. Heck, just look at the XP's MacOS X-esque styling... What was that about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

But, no matter, we digress. Here's what Stork goes on to say about 1394: "I think people are going to want to have 1394 connectors on their PCs and mobile devices so they can get video in and out of their PCs quickly. The consumer electronics industry adopted 1394 for digital electronics devices, and we’re definitely seeing the connectors becoming common on video devices... 1394, in my opinion, has critical mass.

"It makes sense to work toward getting 1394 connectors onto all PCs, and especially onto all PCs used in any graphical way in a business. To do video, USB just isn’t enough. USB today goes up to 12 megabits per second, and 1394 is around 200-400Mbps. You need that extra speed."

Now, Stork is well aware - or he should be - that USB 2.0 runs at 480Mbps, certainly sufficient for digital video if 1394's 400Mbps is. Yet, tellingly, he doesn't mention USB 2.0 at all. And that's not the half of it. Touting 1394 as the best option for digital video isn't a revolutionary notion, because USB 2.0 isn't a mature technology yet and the camcorder makers are all rapidly building 1394 interfaces into their kit. But Stork's goes on:

"Then, once you've got 1394, it also becomes a candidate for things like printers, scanners or an additional hard disk. So the potential is there for 1394 to be a connector for a lot of PC devices. In addition, if you had two PCs with a 1394 socket on there, you could put a cable between the two of them, and they'd be networked."

In other words, Stork believes that 1394 will handle all the extra, fast bus stuff that USB 2.0 is designed to replace it at. With USB 2.0 silicon shipping now, peripherals capable of working with the bus are expected to debut late Q2/early Q3, in the Windows XP launch timeframe.

Indeed: "I also think that home networking is going to continue to be a big demand boost to the PC industry, and Windows XP will provide a seamless base for that. Where Ethernet will be the network of choice for the home, this standard will be automatically supported over various media types, such as... 1394 ports."

Peripherals and networking? And this is the message Microsoft will be making at WinHEC to all those PC and peripheral hardware engineers?

But here's a thought. Microsoft is working on making its media-manipulation code as movie and music industry-friendly as possible. And it's working Secure PC concept - a machine that makes it impossible to pirate digital media. That's predicated upon protecting material coming in through the PC's ports, as well as the Net. And that means using a secure transport. Last week, the 1394 Trade Association put its weight behind building just such a protection mechanism into the spec.

The missing link is 1394 support in Windows. And, from Stork's comments, the OS is going to get it, in spades. ®

Related Link

M$' PressPass interview with Carl Stork

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