Death to FireWire 400

How Apple sets the industry standard -- again.

By Cyrus Farivar
Published October 17, 2008 8:38PM (EDT)

So after all the fanfare from Tuesday's event, what with the new laptops and all, Apple has made yet another splash in the industry. But I'm not talking about the laptops themselves, nor their design, nor the fact that, as predicted, they're sporting two graphics cards. I'm talking about the fact that Apple, as a company, has subtly made a very clear decision about technical standards and where the industry should go. For a company that hasn't even yet cracked the 10 percent market share of the computer industry, Apple is remarkably adept at making spec decisions that affect the entire industry.

The new round of laptops ditch FireWire 400 in favor of USB 2.0. As many longtime Apple watchers no doubt recall, it was but 13 years ago that Apple helped usher in this new standard of high-speed data transfer between peripheral and computer. The idea, at the time, was that SCSI just wasn't cutting it.

But with the sudden dissappearance of FireWire 400 -- Wired's Gadget Lab account: "FW400 met the killer's eyes. He remained silent as the bullet entered his brain and he crumpled to the floor" -- it seems pretty clear that this standard is no more. Even Steve Jobs himself wrote one customer to say that he didn't need it anymore.

Many Apple fans aren't too thrilled with this decision. Just read the Apple discussion boards:

"To me, it seems like Apple design guys (brilliant though they often are) are stuck in their ivory tower in Cupertino and go so 'into' the design aesthetic that they forget that real people, with real budgets, like to buy and use their products," wrote one user named Robeddie. "It's been said before, but here you have a consumer level laptop, and we can't use consumer level DV cameras with it to edit. Wasn't it Apple who advertised these things not long ago as THE tool for casual home movie editing?"

Further, as Gadget Lab laments:

The biggest problem with this is that you can't use FireWire hard drives, which remain a lot quicker than USB 2.0. It also means that you cannot use the rather useful FireWire Target mode, which turns a Mac into a FireWire external hard drive. Perhaps there will be a new USB Target mode to make up for this, but right now we don't know.

Yes, there are reasons for Apple fans to be upset, but this has happened before, and probably will happen again. Simply put, as Macworld senior editor Peter Cohen wrote me in an e-mail, the company is extremely good at figuring out what protocols to support, and what technologies to ditch.

"But Apple's COO, Tim Cook, is always quick to point out that half of the customers who buy a new Mac from the Apple Store are new to the platform," he wrote. "We can then infer that half the people who will be buying new MacBooks are new to the platform as well. For many of them, the MacBook's lack of FireWire connectivity may not be a problem in the slightest; they may not have any FireWire peripherals at all."

Furthermore, Apple users and the industry as a whole have been largely well served by these decisions.

"[This decision to remove FireWire is] similar to what Apple's done before, with the removal of floppy drives from its computers, for example," he wrote. "At the time, there were cries of derision from customers. Ultimately, it didn't amount to much, and, in fact, the industry eventually followed suit."

The original iMac, released in 1998, was the first Apple computer to ditch an internal floppy drive. It was also the first to include the up-and-coming standard of USB, another port decision that carried a lot of weight throughout the industry.

Further, Apple was soon the first company to include built-in Wi-Fi (instead of with an add-on external card), noted Phil Belanger, one of the pioneers of the Wi-Fi standard, in an e-mail to me.

"There is no question that Apple pushed the other notebook vendors by committing to Wi-Fi early and across the whole product line at a very aggressive price point," he wrote.

So what does that mean for Apple, in establishing new standards? While Apple may have ditched FireWire 400 on its lower-end laptop models, it has thrown its weight behind an up-and-coming new-and-improved monitor standard, DisplayPort, as Macworld's Peter Cohen also points out.

As he wrote me:

Apple has as much input into determining industry standards as any other business that avails itself of an opportunity to help formulate one. They sit on the advisory boards and steering committees of countless standards organizations. And in the case of DisplayPort, they're in good company. Apple's sitting with everyone from Intel to AMD and Nvidia to make it happen. I suspect that DisplayPort's widespread adoption for computer monitors is more a question of when than of if.

Apple's high public visibility certainly helps companies and organizations gain an awareness of their products and standards that wouldn't be available otherwise. I suspect we wouldn't see nearly any of the public interest in DisplayPort if it had appeared on a Gateway or HP laptop. As I said before, other companies have already introduced DisplayPort products, but there's been little or no interest in it.

So yeah, maybe my FireWire-only drive won't work on the new MacBook that I'll probably buy next year. But I'm going to trust His Steveness on this one.

Cyrus Farivar

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