Q&A: Adaptec's Silver on FireWire

Although Universal Serial Bus (USB) has been 1996's headline-grabbing bus, IEEE 1394, more glamorously known as FireWire, could have a more radical effect on the desktop. This interface is also serial, also hot-pluggable, and can also daisychain peripherals (up to 63 devices), but is blazingly fast at up to 400Mbits per second.

Although Universal Serial Bus (USB) has been 1996's headline-grabbing bus, IEEE 1394, more glamorously known as FireWire, could have a more radical effect on the desktop. This interface is also serial, also hot-pluggable, and can also daisychain peripherals (up to 63 devices), but is blazingly fast at up to 400Mbits per second. The conventional wisdom is that it will become the bus for digital video but, as Adam Silver, senior product manager for the advanced media products group at Adaptec, which is building FireWire interface cards, told PCDN, it could be a lot more wide ranging.

PCDN: Perhaps one of the reasons that FireWire hasn't commanded the mindshare of USB is the absence of a naming convention. What are we calling it today?

We refer to it internally as 1394 FireWire. Some people call it IEEE 1394, some call it FireWire. FireWire is the name Apple used and let everyone else use. I'll call it Norman from now. [laughs]

How do you differentiate FireWire from USB and other bus types?

There are a number of different interfaces and lots of different applications for them. [FireWire] will open up a whole new category. Never before were you able to capture and manipulate digital video so easily. [But] FireWire is bus like any other bus. It can carry any type of passenger: fat, thin, tall, short. You could send digital video, digital audio, send information to the printer, scanner, even a cable modem. The most significant thing is it's serial. USB is not nearly so fast.

When will FireWire become widespread?

I don't think you'll see it in mainstream desktops straight away. USB is cheaper and it's integrated in core logic chipsets. FireWire is more expensive and therefore will appear on host adapters. We have had lots of discussions with PC system OEMs and Apple. Pretty much all have said it's their plan to put FireWire in some configurations and migrate to mainstream desktops through 1998. Initially it'll probably go into the showcase-type systems. Today we have a variety of digital video stations that are DV-ready. By the middle of next year we expect to see colour printers, cameras and scanners on FireWire. These will be media creation systems with things like very fast SCSI storage subsystems. First systems will appear in the first half of 1997. Apple, IBM and Compaq have said they will develop products. Sun has endorsed [FireWire].

How expensive to implement is FireWire?

For a single unit $350, much less for a company that wants to buy 10,000 obviously. It adds more than a couple of hundred dollars to the system cost though.

At 12Mbps USB is plenty fast for mice, scanners, printers, modems and most serial peripherals. Outside of digital video is there real demand for the bandwidth FireWire offers?

Well, there's support for it in Windows. Apple has got it in [Mac OS]. People are very excited and there are already more peripherals for FireWire than USB. USB has none! There's always a need for more bandwidth. Because FireWire is isochronous it means printer and scanner makers can make their products at a much lower cost because they get a steady flow of data. You don't need a big memory buffer. You're probably aware of Sony camcorders with 1394. In the US, retailers still can't keep them on the shelves. They take 100 and they're gone that day, and they're like $3,000. This week they launched the new DCRPC7. It's literally passport-sized. In the UK they'll cost about £1,200.

Who are the first buyers?

We call them Prosumers. Prosumer is a broad term covering event managers, multimedia producers, small-scale production people. I've got a strange sort of personality but I'd buy one.

What about disk drive makers. Are they keen to adopt FireWire?

It's split. The hard drive makers are not adopting it. They like the technology but it doesn't make sense for their [products]. The drive channel speed is constantly increasing as developments emerge. It takes two years to incorporate a new interface. In two years the channel speed is going to be very close to the maximum FireWire bandwidth. On the silicon side it's more expensive than SCSI. The other side is removable. Products like the Iomega Zip don't have the same speed demands. They sell a lot to publishing and production bureaux so they'll want to be on the same bus as the printers, scanners and video equipment that will be there.

What does the future roadmap look like?

1394 right now is specified to run up to 400Mbits per second and 800Mbits in the future. It will be plug and cable backwards compatible. As with all these proposals it's not set in stone. If this does move forward those speeds might stimulate hard disk drive makers.

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