The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker said it will not include support for USB 2.0, the latest iteration of the universal serial bus connection technology, in Windows XP, its next-generation operating system expected later this year. Microsoft will instead throw its support behind IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, which was developed by Apple.
USB 2.0, which will succeed the current USB 1.1 standard, and FireWire are means of connecting PCs to peripherals, such as printers and digital camcorders, at high speed. USB 2.0 will deliver throughput of up to 480 megabits per second vs. FireWire's 400mbps or 12mbps for USB 1.1. That's up to 40 times faster than USB 1.1.
Although the company should be able to adopt it fairly easily in the near future, Microsoft's position further accentuates the debate over USB 2.0 vs. FireWire. It also creates strange bedfellows: Apple and Microsoft on one side pitted against USB 2.0's major backers on the other--Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent Technologies and others. Microsoft, too, is a founding member of the USB Implementers Forum.
Microsoft's decision slams USB 2.0 at an important juncture in its development, a move that could keep the connectivity standard from finding a firm footing in mainstream computing, said IDC analyst Roger Kay.
"The longer (USB 2.0) is delayed, the more traction FireWire gets," Kay said. "USB 2.0 on paper is great, but the lack of real USB is going to give FireWire time to entrench itself for those high-bandwidth types of applications, such as video."
USB 2.0 becomes the second major technology not supported in Windows XP. Last week, Microsoft said it will not add support for Bluetooth, a wireless connectivity standard, to Windows XP.
As with Bluetooth, a lack of Microsoft support in the latest version of the market-leading consumer operating system makes USB 2.0 adoption more onerous for hardware manufacturers and software developers. The software giant won't deliver a family of device drivers or other software to simplify how the technology gets incorporated into Windows.
Microsoft refused to provide a product manager or executive to discuss its USB 2.0 position, choosing instead to communicate through a press representative.
"USB 2.0 support will not be included in the (final) version of Windows XP due to the fact that there is not a sufficient array of production-quality devices to test against," she wrote in an e-mail. "Microsoft will not ship support for a standard that they can't guarantee a great user experience on."
So far, USB 2.0 looks good as a concept, but little else, said Dataquest analyst Martin Reynolds.
If nothing else, Microsoft's "wise decision" proves that "USB 2.0 isn't ready yet," Reynolds said. "We've had demonstrations of proof of concepts, but without a plethora of products out in the marketplace it is difficult to gauge it. At this point, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Microsoft to put in a set of drivers that are not debugged and fully qualified."
USB has been wildly popular so far. But because of its slow speed, it has been relegated to hooking up supporting-role PC devices: less-demanding mice, speakers and other low-bandwidth peripherals.
FireWire, by contrast, is an attractive alternative for connecting digital camcorders, scanners and similar high-bandwidth devices to PCs. Apple and Sony offer it on virtually every PC or notebook they sell.
The speedy USB 2.0, building on USB 1.1's huge acceptance, was expected to be a major challenger to FireWire. USB is built into 99 percent of PCs sold today, according to market researcher Cahners In-Stat Group.
Cahners predicts that by 2004, there will be 750 million USB-equipped PCs and peripherals in use vs. 112 million with FireWire.
FireWire is the standard for connecting digital camcorders to PCs, and storage maker Maxtor, among others, has made FireWire its preferred choice for external hard drives.
While putting the brakes on USB 2.0, Microsoft has extended FireWire support in Windows XP beyond that found in any earlier version of the operating system. Windows XP, for example, automatically treats a FireWire card as a network and as a peripheral connectivity device.
Microsoft also fine-tuned how Windows XP attaches to and maximizes the multimedia capabilities of FireWire-equipped digital camcorders and similar devices.
With Windows XP supporting FireWire and its unique capabilities, such as networking, Kay predicted the connectivity option would eventually become standard fare on many PCs. While PC makers had resisted FireWire because of the expense of adding another port to a system, many have aggressively embraced the connectivity standard over the last six months.
Besides long-standing support from Apple and Sony, Compaq, Dell and Gateway widely offer FireWire, with the latter two PC makers adding the connectivity option to some portables as well as desktops.
"It's going to get harder and harder to ask, 'Why not FireWire?' if USB 2.0 gets further delayed," Kay said. "You need that kind of high-speed access."
So when USB 2.0?
The Microsoft representative would not say when the company plans to offer USB 2.0 with Windows XP. Microsoft "recognizes the importance of USB 2.0 as a newly emerging standard and is evaluating the best mechanism for making it available to Windows XP users after the initial release," the representative wrote in an e-mail.
But MicroDesign Resources analyst Peter Glaskowsky believes Microsoft will be able to add USB 2.0 support to Windows XP fairly easily. "The vast majority of code is already in the (operating system), so all that is really needed are new drivers," he said.
For now, consumers will have to rely on companies supplying the USB 2.0 components that go into PCs to supply the drivers. But even some of them don't have a clear timetable for Windows XP support.
If or when Microsoft chooses to support USB 2.0 is not so important as why not now, Reynolds said.
"It's the same thing with Bluetooth. That hardware isn't ready either," he said.
The message is clear, said Kay. Going forward, Microsoft is going to be more picky about the kinds of technologies supported in Windows, "even if it is something they back."
USB hasn’t always been kind to Microsoft in the past, either. One of Chairman Bill Gate's most embarrassing public moments came during his keynote speech at the spring Comdex trade show in Chicago three years ago, when he was demonstrating USB support in Windows 98. After plugging a USB scanner into a test PC, the system promptly crashed while displaying the familiar "blue screen of death" error message, a moment replayed on TV news shows for days.
News.com's Richard Shim and David Becker contributed to this report.