The tragedy of Apple’s FireWire: Collaborative tech torpedoed by corporations

“The rise and fall of FireWire — IEEE 1394, an interface standard boasting high-speed communications and isochronous real-time data transfer — is one of the most tragic tales in the history of computer technology.,” Richard C. Moss writes for Ars Technica. “The standard was forged in the fires of collaboration. A joint effort from several competitors including Apple, IBM, and Sony, it was a triumph of design for the greater good. FireWire represented a unified standard across the whole industry, one serial bus to rule them all. Realized to the fullest, FireWire could replace SCSI and the unwieldy mess of ports and cables at the back of a desktop computer.”

“Yet FireWire’s principal creator, Apple, nearly killed it before it could appear in a single device. And eventually the Cupertino company effectively did kill FireWire, just as it seemed poised to dominate the industry,” Moss writes. “The story of how FireWire came to market and ultimately fell out of favor serves today as a fine reminder that no technology, however promising, well-engineered, or well-liked, is immune to inter- and intra-company politics or to our reluctance to step outside our comfort zone.”

“Not even faster, better versions of the technology (a more efficient version of FireWire 400 followed by FireWire 800, which made it into the Mac, and FireWire 1600 and 3200, which didn’t) could save it. Nor could Apple, which also used FireWire in the first few generations of the iPod. The technology all but disappeared from the PC during the 2000s,” Moss writes. “Today FireWire is fading into memory. Thunderbolt took its place at the high end of the market. And at the volume end, USB 2.0 has given way to the much faster USB 3.0, which is now being replaced by USB-C—a standard being led and championed by Apple…”

Tons more in the full article – recommendedhere.

MacDailyNews Take: It’s all a distant memory now and we’re more than happy with the ports on our Macs, iPhones, and iPads today, but here’s what we wrote about FireWire at the beginning of its end (the last paragraph is particularly interesting in light of the Mac Pro fiasco we’re currently enduring):

Apple obviously seems to be morphing the iPod family’s connectivity from FireWire-centric to USB-centric. The newest member of the iPod lineup, the iPod shuffle connects via USB 1.1 and 2.0 through integrated USB connector. Today’s latest iPod mini and iPod photo connects via USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 (with FireWire cable, sold separately) through Dock connector.

Only the older iPod Special Edition and iPod models seem to still come with FireWire connectivity (FireWire cable) out-of-the-box, featuring both USB 2.0 and FireWire 400. One guess is all it should take to figure out that the next iPod revision will probably not ship with a FireWire Cable and rely upon USB 2.0 instead.

FireWire was the original iPod’s only connection. Apple invented FireWire. You’d think Apple would use its iPod platform to expand FireWire’s reach, not diminish it. Unfortunately, most Wintel PC’s do not come with FireWire standard while all Macs do. It’s ironic that Apple feels they have to knife their own baby in favor of Intel-developed USB, which many consider to be inferior for data transfer compared to FireWire. If the iPod shuffle is any indication, soon FireWire connectivity for all iPods will be discontinued.

So, Mac + iPod users are in the interesting position of being considered second class citizens by Apple, the maker of the Macintosh no less, as Mac users are being forced to pay extra for the superior FireWire connectivity that our iPods would naturally utilize to connect to our Macs. Because more Windows users buy iPods than Mac users, the iPod’s connectivity is being dumbed down to match Wintel PC’s second-rate “standards.” Enjoy!

What’s next, Apple, building Windows key support into iTunes and forcing Mac users to use a mapped function key on their Mac keyboards?

Note to Apple: be very careful with your Mac users. Do not force Mac users into substandard “solutions” just because that’s what the majority of Wintel PC users happen to be stuck with or “tax” Mac users an extra $20 because we want to use the better, Apple-invented connectivity solution that’s built into our better, Apple-invented Mac computers. Apple, you should allow users to choose between FireWire or USB 2.0 cables at the point of purchase, at least at your online store. We Mac users have been treated as second class citizens for years from most other tech companies, do we now have to endure being treated that way by Apple, too? Remember the people that kept your company going for many bleak years. Mac users are watching what you do and how you treat us now very, very closely. — MacDailyNews, February 23, 2005

SEE ALSO:
1394 Trade Association trumpets FireWire’s advantages as ‘greenest’ interface – March 16, 2009
1394 Trade Association: FireWire’s strong presence in notebooks, storage, more points to growth – November 12, 2008
Online petition asks Apple to add FireWire port to MacBook – October 20, 2008
Apple MacBook’s lack of FireWire shouldn’t be considered a deal-breaker – October 17, 2008
Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly responds to Mac user’s outrage over new MacBook’s missing FireWire – October 17, 2008
Some Mac users rage over new MacBook’s missing FireWire – October 16, 2008
Wired claims that ‘Apple quietly kills FireWire 400’ when they haven’t – October 15, 2008
New version of IEEE 1394 standard approved; provides for FireWire speeds up to 3.2 Gigabit/second – July 31, 2008
FireWire to Apple: why have you forsaken me? (part II) – December 09, 2005
FireWire to Apple: why have you forsaken me? – September 09, 2005
Apple disrespects its own Mac users with iPod’s FireWire fiasco – February 24, 2005
Apple should include a combo FireWire and USB 2.0 cable in every iPod box – February 24, 2005
Apple knifing its own FireWire baby by pushing USB 2.0 as iPod’s primary connectivity option – February 23, 2005
Petition to Apple for iPod FireWire support posted online – February 23, 2005
TechWeb: Apple’s FireWire ‘has beat off USB and is poised to break out this year’ – March 19, 2004
FireWire faster than USB 2.0; newer FireWire 800 beats both handily – February 27, 2004

30 Comments

  1. Still using FireWire audio interfaces here – both in PC and Mac-based studio setups – for disk transfer as well.

    In fact, only last year bought a *new* FW audio interface (brand new, from Sweetwater – still selling them), and recently repaired another.

    Not (totally) dead yet 🙂

    1. I picked up a few used Echo AudioFire 2 sound cards in 2014 for DJing. They still “sound” better to me than USB and work great.

      My Metric Halo ULN-2 is still going strong, too. That sounds amazing on it’s own. Plus, it’s Mac-only. 🙂

  2. “And, as Mac users, we like to push forward. As always, we have no respect for the status quo.” from the MDNs take on “Apple’s iPad Pro and iOS 11 will finally kill the MacBook Air”

    1. To be brutally honest, FireWire never really caught on as a general interface. It was embraced in the digital camera industry – video cameras, in particular, shipped with FireWire ports for quite a few years. But FireWire was, at best, an optional for the vast majority of Windows PCs. Relatively few Windows PCs shipped with FireWire standard, and those were predominantly at the high end to satisfy the pros, many of whom use FirewWire for video and audio.

      In my opinion, Apple’s approach renders this discussion somewhat irrelevant in terms of the hardware (connector/port) aspects. Thunderbolt supports a variety of data protocols including FireWire, USB, ethernet, etc. The concept of equating a particular connector type with a specific data protocol is antiquated, in my opinion.

      Given the number of different types of data protocols and ports, including ancient ones like VGA, it is getting ridiculous to expect a mass market, general purpose computer to satisfy the needs of both consumers and pros. Everyone thinks that their needs are special and deserve special attention.

      If I were a pro, I would welcome Thunderbolt. If I were servicing the pro industry, I would build data hubs that would break out high speed Thunderbolt links into sets of ports tailored to specific industries – maybe the video and audio industries needs ten or twenty FireWire 800 ports for each Thunderbolt link while someone else needs 10 USB 3.0 ports or ten GigE ports. There is modularity inside a box and there is modularity external to the box.

    2. @Kolache,

      There’s a lot of factors which killed Firewire.

      For example, OS X helped kill FW.

      How? Because they curtailed driver support … out of the box, OS X would only support a FW memory devices (e.g., external drives) and no other legacy FW peripherals.

      I still happen to have a higher-end scanner which came with both FW & USB ports … and it runs 30% slower on USB than it did on FW.

  3. I followed the development and application of Firewire throughout that period and I’m firmly of the opinion that USB 3, Sony and Apple all killed it off.

    Microsoft latched on to USB 3 as a means to end Firewire and, as a means of outmanoeuvring Apple.

    Apple effectively killed off the protocol when it replaced iPods with USB interfaces. In other words Apple’s original trojan horse into the PC market (the iPod) was switched over to USB 2 and that was the beginning of the end of the interface. Sure, Macs were still being shipped with Firewire but with the iPod decision the writing was on the wall. (I still have a working iMac and Firewire iPod from that period.)

    However, when all is said and done Firewire was light years ahead of SCSI (pronounced “skuzzy”). I remember how we were told that the interface could be used to daisy chain peripherals except that sometimes they wouldn’t “speak” to each other and you had to reorder the so called pecking order of the attached hardware. Talk about a PITA.

    In all events whether by fate or design I am thankful to Sony and Apple (in that order) for making Firewire happen as it was a real quantum leap in technology.

    1. FireWire was vastly superior to USB 3, not only in speed, but because it was P2P and USB was always Host->Controller. Firewire disks, especially optical diks were always vastly more reliable than USB DVD-R drives, which still fail all the time when burning.

      Sony had fully adopted FireWire, not only on cameras but also on PlayStation 2 as “iLink”.

      Too bad FW didn’t replace USB as a universal because it was vastly superior tech. Now everyone has to pay mega-prices for all T-bolt gear because of the Intel royalties on the interface. Enjoy paying 3X folks.

    2. What’s missing from the article and what a lot of people overlook is the impact that random access storage in digital audio/video devices had on FireWire.

      FireWire, for a number of years, was the go to method for inputting digital audio/video from tape (hence why “DV” was associated with it).

      USB wasn’t just slower, it simply wasn’t an option for this at all during the “digital tape era”.

      Once Flash/HDD/SSD storage took over digital recording, FireWire wasn’t needed, even if it was faster/better. This combined with Thunderbolt and its subsequent roll-in to USB meant the end to what should be looked at as an era where FireWire was successful in dominating at a very specific task.

  4. Just a clarification or two.

    1. Microsoft should be added to the list of companies that specifically killed off Firewire and,

    2. It was the SCSI interface that sometimes had “communication problems” something that I never experienced with Firewire.

  5. FireWire would have likely died eventually, anyway, due to the rise of new protocols. Thunderbolt is better, faster, and more flexible. Lightning and USB-C connectors are far better than their 30-pin dock, clunky USB 1/2, and D-sub ancestors. The old makes way for the new.

    Which begs the question…”Why are many PCs still equipped with analog VGA ports?”

  6. In my personal experience I think FireWire may have been discontinued because it would fry electronics sometimes. Whether that was due to the electronics’ poor quality or FireWire itself I don’t know. Sure seen people burn up lots of things though. You had to be so careful connecting/disconnecting it.

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