FireWire, 1394, I.Link: All Roads Lead to Convergence
Posted May 7, 2004

In mid-March during its quarterly report, the 1394 Trade Association announced a slew of FireWire-equipped consumer electronics (CE) products from major manufacturers like Samsung, LG Electronics, and Panasonic. These products include DVD players, A/V receivers, digital video recorders, MiniDV camcorders, and, perhaps most significantly, plasma and rear-projection HDTVs.

Introduced over 15 years ago, the 1394 specification (rebranded by Apple as FireWire and by Sony as i.Link, all of which are identical) has been around since the dawn of computing that was capable of handling digital video and audio. "It started at Apple because people needed a good, dedicated bus for video transport," says Dick Davies, a representative of the 1394 Trade Association. While it's existed for nearly as long as digital video, its evolution has been relatively slow. "This whole thing has moved one step at a time for years; it's the antithesis to the Internet," says Davies. But someday soon FireWire's strengths in transferring audio and video may finally enable the oft-promised but still unfulfilled convergence of computers and consumer electronics.

The significance of the latest "convergence" releases with 1394 support: they herald FireWire's entrance into home theater. Through an FCC mandate, all future cable boxes and HDTV tuners will have both DVI and FireWire interfaces. DVI is the standard being pushed by the movie studios as it only transmits data in one direction, meaning content cannot be pirated. "The Hollywood studios don't want to have copies; large CE companies don't want to be responsible for enabling copying," says Davies. FireWire, on the other hand, allows for two-way transfers, for example, from an HDTV to a PVR and from the PVR back to the HDTV. Davies explains that this ability allows people to make personal copies; the FireWire copyright protection standard has yet to be broken or hacked. But the future of FireWire isn't found in wires and cables. "Wireless FireWire is ready to go," says Davies. "The spec is approved, and some prototypes are being played with." Once it hits the CE market, it will enable users to use a remote to transfer multimedia content wirelessly, potentially ridding home theaters of the dreaded cable clutter. That doesn't mean that it will be an easy road to total acceptance. "Those who don't like this wireless FireWire are people who think that there are some problems with individuals moving content around within the home entertainment space," says Davies. Some content owners worry about the security of data flying through the air; other dissidents question whether or not sending audio/video through walls will negatively affect signal fidelity. According to Davies, "the best example of the potential for success is that there's an opposition against it."

But the future of FireWire won't just be found in suburban miniplexes; it'll be in minivans as well. A number of 2006 model-year automobiles, from companies like Toyota and possibly Ford, will take the next step in in-car entertainment systems. "Why can't we have a bus in the car like the house that will let us plug everything in and have it pick right up?" Davies asks rhetorically. While the automotive network bus is in place, wireless will not be available at the outset, but should be in future generations.

The future of FireWire also isn't limited to connecting various pieces of home and auto entertainment CE devices. The 1394c spec (1394b is FireWire 800) will enable FireWire and Ethernet to cohabitate. "It will, in effect, be a toggle switch to go between the specs depending on what it's trying to do," explains Davies. Just as FireWire proved wrong pundits who thought that all computers would have only one interface, most often thought to be USB, Ethernet and FireWire will no longer be fighting for sockets. While Davies doesn't claim that FireWire will be able to usurp Ethernet in the networking market, he says, "Ethernet would have to be changed so much that it wouldn't be Ethernet anymore if it wants do A/V as well as FireWire."

By 2005, FireWire will be positioned to become a connector of all sorts of electronic devices—from home theater components to digital camcorders to laptops and PCs—potentially making it a key enabler in the quest for PC-CE convergence, especially as the federally mandated 2007 HDTV deadline approaches and all media goes digital. As Davies puts it, "It's not that nobody can live without this. It's more, ‘Why can't we have this?'"