FireWire R.I.P?

Although I finally have a new PowerBook on the way, up until now I have owned nothing more powerful than an 800Mhz iBook G3. My other machine, bought second hand subsequently, is a 400Mhz iMac G3. And whilst, courtesy of no less than three logic board failures (two in the space of less than a month), I have no love for the iBook, the iMac is a solid machine. But because of the age of both of these, they are both firmly stuck in USB 1.0 land.

But both of them do have a FireWire port. Actually, the iMac manages to cram in two in that little panel on the right hand side – you know, the one with the upside-down USB connectors. With 2G iPod and external hard disk in tow, I have enjoyed the benefits of its lightning fast speeds even on machines as antique as these. In fact, FireWire has proved speedy enough for me to configure a 14″ iBook which boots from an external drive, and Mac mini performance whores are recommended to do the same to overcome the sluggish speeds that are caused by the 4200rpm laptop-class drive within. FireWire, in short, is quick, and I love it because of that.

USB 2 has, of course, become commonplace since these machines first hit the shelves, and provides eminently acceptable performance for most needs. Despite claimed speeds of 480 Mbps, it’s certainly not as quick as FireWire 400 (to say nothing of FireWire 800), but the significance here is in the acceptability. The fact is that for most users – who do little more than watch a DivX video, play some MP3s or view some photos – USB 2 is more than good enough. Why would they pay extra for a FireWire drive?

When the iPod came out, as well as its then impressively diminutive size, its ultra-fast transfer speeds soon became an impressive selling point. Whilst most MP3 players at that time contained about 64MB of memory and used USB 1 as their interface, Apple – producing the ultimate MP3 player – used FireWire. It made sense – all their Macs had it, and it was ridiculously fast for the time.

With the passage of time, much has changed. Apple no longer really pushes the iPod as much of a premium product, something which is perhaps most evident from its pricing – I paid £330 for a 10Gb iPod in August 2002; three years on, a roughly equivalent 20Gb iPod costs £209). With this, Apple has had to take a pragmatic approach to compatibility, introducing USB connectivity, then charging over USB, then removing the FireWire cable from the package and finally, with the iPod nano, removing FireWire connectivity altogether.

Why? Why would they do this? Why would Steve let this happen?

It’s simple, of course. Apple wants to kill FireWire.

Right. Yes, that’s it.

Try this. Go to an Apple Shop. Pick up an iPod nano. Marvel at its minuscule size. Maybe buy one. Then head on over to Ars Technica and examine their post-stress test autopsy. Examine it closely.

Strikes me that there is not an awful lot of spare space on the iPod nano’s circuit board. Would it not be prudent – given that “everyone” has a USB 2 port but not everyone has a FireWire port – to strip out any unnecessary elements? Like, say, a FireWire controller?

More importantly, perhaps, are the cost implications. Given the now fierce competition in the MP3 player market, and the considerable drop in the price of the iPod (as illustrated above), sacrifices have had to be made. Manufacturing has moved from Taiwan to China (and quality has dropped as a result). And given that FireWire external hard disks always cost more than their equivalent size USB 2 counterparts, something which is at least partly due to the cost of the controller, cutting FireWire from the nano seems a pretty obvious choice.

Finally – and this applies more generally to the iPod line – is the issue of need. I pointed out earlier that USB 2 is more than sufficient to satisfy the needs of most users. Indeed, I can think of people who are quite happy with USB 1.0 for iPod syncing. Simply put, now that we have USB 2, FireWire is over the top, especially given the slow speed of the hard disks and flash memory on which iPods store your music and data.

So we don’t need FireWire for the iPod anymore. I can hear the clacking of a thousand keyboards as cynical Apple types prepare obituaries for what they see as the inevitable.

But this is probably a little hasty. Get rid of FireWire, and the film industry will let out more than just a little whine. FireWire is the de-facto interface for high-speed data transfer of video to the computer, for amateurs and professionals alike. Record your work on a DV camera, stream it into iMovie or Final Cut Pro using FireWire and probably out onto an external hard disk, again using FireWire. Graphic designers use FireWire scanners and save their work onto external FireWire hard disks. Sound engineers record audio using FireWire-connected audio sources and save to FireWire hard disks. USB 2, because of its comparatively poor performance, will never make real inroads into the professional segment of the market, and is still not as universal as FireWire in the lower end (for DV).

And as if to ensure FireWire’s superiority over USB, not long after USB 2 emerged Apple started shipping Power Mac G5s with FireWire 800. Now the (larger) PowerBooks have it too. Kinda leaves the USB folk standing in the dust…