FireWire R.I.P.

02/27/2005

A lot has been written about Apple’s newest iPods, announced last week. While these new models offer no innovations, they stand out by what they do not offer: FireWire cables. Apple pioneered the use of FireWire as an interface back in the days of the early iMac. This high-speed interface offers good, stable throughput, and also powers devices able to draw power from the cable; the six wires and pins of a FireWire cable provide both data and power transmission, with 4 pins for data and 2 for power.

But USB 2.0 came along, changing things. USB 2.0 provides a throughput that is slightly higher than FireWire, though less stable (in practice, FireWire seems able to provide a more regular amount of data transfer than USB 2.0). FireWire is a great interface: you can hot-plug or unplug devices, you can daisy chain a large number of devices, and FireWire connectors are relatively idiot-proof (there’s no way you can insert a connector the wrong way, and the connectors themselves are hard to damage).

However, FireWire ports only come standard on Macs; PC users generally have to buy additional FireWire cards to add to their computers. Early iPods were FireWire only; later generations offered both cables; now, only USB cables are provided.

So Apple’s decision to abandon FireWire cables with its iPods, at least in the box, seems like an admission of defeat. While you can still use a FireWire cable with the iPod (Apple sells the cable for $19), it seems likely that they won’t be offering them standard again in the future. After all, with the majority of iPod users owning PCs, which don’t offer FireWire ports, it makes sense. Or does it?Many computer users have far too many devices that use USB. Even if they have a USB hub, it is usually overloaded. In addition, the hub has to be able to handle USB 2.0 transfer speeds, or they’ll be waiting a very long time to update their 60 GB iPod photo. Also, a lot of PC users don’t have USB 2.0; while this is the norm on recent PCs, I know plenty of people still using Windows 98 on relatively old PCs. On the flip side, lots of Mac users, who don’t have recent Macs, will be left out as well: they’ll have FireWire ports, but not FireWire cables.

It is understandable that Apple wants to save money – and keep the price of the iPod down – by not offering this cable. But one problem is that users who need a FireWire cable won’t know it’s missing until they get home, unless they’re lucky enough to shop in a store where the sales clerk points this out. This happened to a friend, but in the other direction; when he bought his first iPod about a year ago, it didn’t have a USB cable. He only discovered this when he got home, and since he didn’t have a FireWire card in his PC, he had to go back to the store to buy one.

What Apple should do is sell the iPod in two versions: one with FireWire and one without. Barring this, they should make sure that FireWire cables are available in stores, so users who want FireWire can get the cable easily, without have to order it from the Apple Store.

But the larger question is this: is FireWire dead? I have several external hard disks with FireWire connectors, but in the past year or so, combined interface disks have become common (with both FireWire and USB 2.0). Could Apple’s decision be the death-knell for FireWire? Time will tell.