The technology world is no stranger to format wars
Since the showdown between Betamax and VHS to the current struggle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, companies intent on owning technology standards are willing to spend big bucks persuading other companies to join their respective camps. Some companies do this for the royalties while others do it to increase the availability and distribution of their intellectual property.
A much quieter format war has been waged on the PC over the past ten years
The Universal Serial Bus standard, more popularly known as USB, was distributed with the Windows operating system in late 1996. The standard was jointly created by Compaq, IBM, DEC, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Northern Telecom and is now available on 90% of all computers manufactured today.
FireWire owned the high-speed market from the beginning
In 1995, the same year that the USB standard was being formalized, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) approved the IEEE-1394 standard, also known as FireWire or i.link, which had been developed by Apple. The fast speeds promised by FireWire (100 Mbps, 200 Mbps, 400 Mbps) was overkill for most peripherals not requiring a massive amount of bandwidth, such as mice and keyboards. Sony quickly embraced the technology (referring to it as i.link) and, along with a host of other manufacturers, integrated it into bandwidth-hungry peripherals such as digital cameras, digital camcorders, optical drives, scanners, web cams, etc.
USB and FireWire lived together happily in the beginning
In the early days these formats were not mutually-exclusive – there was very little overlap between the technologies and hence little competition. FireWire owned the high-bandwidth market while USB owned the low-bandwidth. At a max speed of 12 Mbps USB could not begin to compete with the 400 Mbps standard that evolved from FireWire for data transfer.
USB 2.0 is introduced
The end of the year 2001 marked a drastic change in the competitive landscape for these two standards: USB 2.0 was released. USB 2.0 offered the ease of use of (renamed) USB 1.1 and, at 480 Mbps, comparable speeds to FireWire. Note that while the theoretical limit of USB 2.0 is 80 Mbps faster than FireWire, empirically FireWire seems to be more efficient and thus has a higher effective transfer rate.
FireWire lost its competitive advantage
To simplify the process of purchasing peripherals and devices, manufacturers have identified no clear advantage of including FireWire ports on many new laptops and desktops and it is becoming increasingly more common to find new computers with only USB 2.0 ports. Even the digital video industry, which has long favored FireWire as the interface of choice, has begun to accept USB 2.0 as an alternative to FireWire because of the universal availability of USB ports.
Who will win the next battle?
So while there may be slight performance gains by using FireWire, many people are abandoning the technology in favor of the more popular USB standard. To compete for high-end, data intensive applications, FireWire 800, with a maximum speed of 800 Mbps, is helping FireWire maintain its position as the interface of choice for bandwidth-hungry devices – it will be interesting to see how the release of a faster USB technology will be received by the consumer market.