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FireWire Evolution

By James Wiebe

The purpose of this white paper is to comment on FireWire evolution, especially in reference to FireWire 800 development. Topics of discussion include: historical elements of FireWire; early thinking on FireWire 800; high and low points of FireWire 800 as perceived in todays marketplace with a conclusion focusing on the prognostication of external storage technology.

In the summer of 2002, my company (WiebeTech LLC) exhibited at the MacWorld show in New York City. Our product line of storage enclosures were competing well in the marketplace, and many of our products were successful because they had FireWire ports. We had the good fortune to have our trade show booth directly next to Oxford Semiconductor. Oxfords claim to fame is that they are one of the larger suppliers of FireWire bridging silicon on this planet, having scored market gold with the well known OXFW911 FireWire bridge. The 911 is the bridging brainpower behind many of the most popular FireWire 400 storage enclosures sold at that time, and still holds that position of prominence even today. As a result, the 911 has significant market share, is preferred by many savvy consumers, and has delivered substantial revenue to Oxford Semiconductor (based, not surprisingly, in Oxford, England.)

All Macs produced today allow attachment to FireWire peripherals, and so do many Windows / Linux PCs. FireWire is a significant feature within many digital video cameras. FireWire, particularly FireWire 400, had been very kind to Oxford Semiconductor and to Apple Computer.

Oxford had certainly been bootstrapped from far off the radar to a position of industry prominence with its 911 product success. In hopes of more market gains, Oxford was paying much attention to a new industry FireWire specification, which built on all of the successes of FireWire 400 while immediately doubling transfer rates from 400 to 800 Mbps. The improved FireWire specification was known as ?1394b and ultimately came to be known to consumers as FireWire 800. (Technically, the 1394b spec covers much more than just doubling transfer speeds cable connections were redesigned groundwork for even faster speeds was laid some of these details are important; some of them arent and will safely be ignored by this paper.)

In an effort to jump start this next generation FireWire 800 technology, Oxford brought samples of FireWire 800 bridging silicon to the show. They earnestly and keenly hoped that Apple would introduce a computer with FireWire 800 ports at that show; but it wasnt to be.

FireWire 800 was a much anticipated technology, for these reasons:

1) FireWire 400 was faster than any other external drive connection technology (EG: USB1 and USB2) but was still slower than the underlying drive transfer rate. In other words, FireWire 400 was a bottleneck to the external hard drive. It was always faster to install the hard drive inside the computer. This irritating fact was mitigated by the Oxford 911, which did a much better job of FireWire transfer rates than first generation FireWire devices, such as the Oxford 900.

2) It would help improve and differentiate the Apple platform by doubling the transfer rate performance to external storage devices.

3) The flaws of FireWire 400 had become the fodder of discussion groups, as a result of blown firewire drives and blown motherboard ports, especially in Apple computers. FireWire 800 promised to resolve most of these issues. Please reference a prior white paper on the topic: http://www.wiebetech.com/pressreleases/FireWirePortFailures.htm

4) FireWire 800 had a bevy of new features that would prevent port blowouts.

5) FireWire 400 had evolved to the point where further gains in storage performance could only be achieved by a jump to the next higher technology; ergo: FireWire 800.

6) FireWire 800 was creating a critical fear that FireWire 400 devices (and host computers featuring FireWire 400 ports) would soon be obsolete. This fear was certainly rattling around inside my head, but was also evident in end users.

7) FireWire 800 was perceived as an important stepping stone along the path to even greater speeds, including FireWire 1600 and FireWire 3200. It was an interesting trade show, but it certainly wasnt the show that Oxford wanted. Apple brought absolutely nothing that suggested that FireWire 800 was part of their current or future product plans, which left Oxford (the biggest silicon advocate of FireWire 800) in an empty position. The storage manufacturers, along with Oxford, left the show wondering what might happen next, and when it would happen.

Fast forward to January, 2003, San Francisco. Another MacWorld, a different city than the last show. This time, the sequence of events went a little more to Oxfords hopes and desires. Apple introduced two new Powerbooks: a 12 inch midget and a 17 inch beauty. The larger of the two new machines featured a FireWire 800 port. Several different storage manufacturers, WiebeTech included, announced storage products based on FireWire 800 technology, all based on Oxfords FireWire 800 bridging silicon (the Oxford OXUF922). Apple had been kind enough to provide beta software to WiebeTech and other drive manufacturers which enabled these products. As a result, FireWire 800 was officially a reality and a factor in the marketplace. Later in the month, Apple introduced a desktop computer with FireWire 800 ports as well. It appeared that this new connectivity methodology was late but well launched. Preliminary performance results showed that FireWire 800 was significantly faster than FireWire 400, but not double the speed. FireWire 800 required new cables and connectors, but the redesigned connectors in FireWire 800 helped resolve some of the issues that had plagued many FireWire 400 products and host ports. 

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Related Keywords:FireWire, FireWire 800, IEEE1394, James Wiebe, FireWire white paper


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