The life and death of FireWire


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Ars Technica has a great feature on FireWire. FireWire was a marvel when it launched, but ultimately lost the port race due to lack of vision and widespread support.

The final design specification ran over 300 pages--a complex technology with elegant functionality. Ratified as IEEE 1394 in 1995, it allowed for speeds up to 400 megabits (50 MB) per second, simultaneously in both directions, over cables up to 4.5 meters long. Cables could power connected devices with as much as 1.5 amperes of electrical current (at up to 30 volts). As many as 63 devices could be networked together on the same bus, and all were hot-swappable. Everything was configured automatically on connection, too, so you didn't need to worry about network termination or device addresses. And FireWire had its own micro-controller, so it was unaffected by fluctuations in CPU load.

Before the mid-90's, if you wanted work on digital video, you generally needed a pretty significant capture hardware. Targus cards would run $2,000+ as a means of capturing uncompressed analog video to something manageable that a hard disk array could handle. They were NuBus cards, which is another blast from the past. When FireWire came along, it brought with it the new DV digital video standard that Sony put into its camcorders. Reasonably good quality video for the day could be transferred digitally for comparably free. My first Mac to have this was the Bondi blue PowerMac G3. Digital video suddenly became possible for regular consumers.

FireWire also saved us from SCSI. Thinking back, SCSI seemed insane. Various flavors that were not compatible, terminators, and outrageously expensive cables. Chaining devices together was a sort of black magic. Along comes FireWire that does the above quote and changed everything.

We now have Thunderbolt, which seems on its way to grave yard itself, USB 3.0, and most recently USB-C. Good news is Apple still supports FireWire with one of its any white dongles. I still use it almost daily, which is kind of neat considering how much has changed.