Microsoft disconnects Intel pet project

Windows support for FireWire instead of USB 2.0 is a blow to Intel's plans and could leave consumers in limbo

Microsoft's plans to leave out support for USB 2.0 in its next major release of Windows could bring it into conflict with one of its most important allies: Intel.

For the last year and a half or so, Intel has been pushing USB 2.0 as the future for peripherals and high-speed devices such as video cameras and storage, hoping it would relegate standards such as IEEE 1394 (also known as FireWire) to consumer electronics. But USB 2.0 devices have taken longer to appear than planned, and last week the standard took a further knock when it came to light that Microsoft will not support it in Windows XP -- at least not at launch.

Since the new Windows -- designed to bring Microsoft's consumer and business operating systems together -- won't appear until some time in the second half of the year, native USB 2.0 support would seem to be some time away. Microsoft says the reason is simply that the standard isn't yet up to scratch, while FireWire devices (which will be supported) have been on the market for years.

"It's simply a timing question in terms of support for USB 2.0," said a Microsoft spokeswoman. "There hasn't been a sufficient array of production-quality products for testing."

USB 1.1 is now built into almost all PCs, but with a top data transfer rate of 12Mbit/s it is only suitable for peripherals such as low-end printers and mice. USB 2.0 takes the rate up to 480Mbit/s, which compares favourably with FireWire's 400Mbit/s. The two factors USB has going for it are its ease of use and, nowadays, its near-universality -- all USB 2.0 machines will be USB 1.1 backward-compatible. It is also much cheaper: FireWire costs more to build into motherboards because it requires more complex circuits, and licence fees have to be paid to Apple, which invented the specification.

The standard was largely the work of Intel, throwing its weight behind USB's development as a way around paying Apple's licence fees.

Intel's vision has been for USB to eventually take over much of the role of FireWire -- particularly in the realm of storage. Lucent, Texas Instruments and Cypress had all reached the advanced stages of USB 2.0 silicon sampling by the time of Comdex in November and early products, such as hardware upgrade cards, are beginning to be available.

But the more time that passes, the more FireWire is entrenching itself at the expense of USB 2.0, according to analysts.

"It's going to get harder and harder to ask, 'Why not FireWire?' if USB 2.0 gets further delayed," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. "You need that kind of high-speed access."

Microsoft said it could add USB 2.0 support to Windows XP in the form of a downloadable update.

Joe Wilcox of CNET News.com contributed to this report.

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