The Fraught History of FireWire

Richard C. Moss, Ars Technica:

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. 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.

The beauty of FireWire is that it had promised, consistent speeds no matter how long the file transfer took. That meant that transferring equivalent data was way faster on a FireWire 400 connection than it would be using USB 2, which made it great for storing large libraries of music, movies, and photos, and especially good for system backups. When I used a mid-2007 MacBook Pro, it was always connected to two FireWire drives: one for Time Machine, and one for my music collection.

Thunderbolt has effectively replaced that niche now — for me, and for lots of others, too — but Apple won’t be making the same mistakes they made with FireWire:

FireWire’s innovations as a technology were drawing attention from the tech press—Byte magazine awarded it Most Significant Technology, for instance—but within Apple, Teener recalls that simply keeping the project alive required a conspiracy between FireWire’s Apple and IBM collaborators. Supporters kept the project funded by each telling their marketing guys the other companies were going to use it.

Getting funded and getting shipped is not the same thing, however. The decision-makers in the Mac engineering and marketing groups refused to add FireWire to the Mac. “Their argument was, ‘Well, show us that it’s being adopted in the industry, and we’ll put it in,'” explained Sirkin. It was their technology, but they didn’t want to be first to push it.

This time, Apple’s going all-out with their commitment to Thunderbolt — the newest MacBook Pros have no other kinds of connectors, aside from the headphone jack. Also, Apple isn’t in a mid-1990s-esque disarray and, this time, Intel has made Thunderbolt 3 entirely royalty-free to try to spur adoption.