IEEE 1394 is the official name of a standard for a connection protocol that originated at Apple. As of June 2003, there exist two 1394 standards. One is the original IEEE 1394a standard, which has been around since 1995. This is what Apple puts in their Powerbooks and ipods and calls "Firewire" (which was licensed by Apple, and has been adopted as the official brand name for the technology by the IEEE 1394 Trade Association), while Sony puts it in their Playstations and Handycams and calls it "i.Link"1. The speed of the older 1394a connections tops out at 400 Mbps. (Other details here).

The newest standard, introduced in 2002, is called 1394b. This provides for speeds of up to 3200 Mbps, over a variety of media types, including copper (with a new 9-pin connector, as opposed to the 4-pin or 6-pin connectors for the older 1394a) as well as plastic and glass optical fiber, shielded and unshielded CAT-5, and wireless. It also gets rid of the old 4.5 meter cable length limit, with connections over CAT-5 currently reaching 100 meters, and possibly more range in the future. 1394b is also backwards compatible with legacy 1394a devices.

Having broken the distance limit, 1394 is being pushed as the new standard to wire a house for a multimedia network. 1394 has built in quality of service guarantees that ethernet lacks, which make it ideal for transporting high quality audio and video, as well as data that needs to be there right now. Many home electronics devices already carry 1394 ports, and the FCC has mandated that all future digital television sets come with 1394 built in. Soon, you will be able to buy firewire wall plates, similar to the ethernet ones that some newer, wired homes come with, to hook up your digital TV, or DVD player, or computer to each other, all in different rooms of the house.

Coming a bit later is wireless 1394. Current plans call for running 1394 networks over 802.11a/b/g, with ultra wide band networks a little farther into the future. Wireless 1394 will have the high bandwidth, low latency connections of wired 1394, but with the freedom to move around freely, and not tear up the walls of your home.

While many people might have a 1394 port or two somewhere nearby right now, not many people have taken advantage of them. This is probably due to the fact that there isn't a whole lot you can do with them right now. The Playstation 2 originally came with 1394 ports, but they've been taken out of recent revisions of the hardware, because there was almost nothing to connect to them. Camcorders, connected with 1394 to computers for home video editing, are one exception, but most devices that use 1394 are for computer storage; other promised devices like 1394 printers have yet to appear on a large scale.

This is all set to change in the next five years. 1394 will appear in all sorts of consumer devices, partly because of the government mandate, but mostly because of creative uses of the technology2. It is set to become the way to digitally connect something to something else.


A note: I am not a Firewire engineer, or any type of engineer for that matter, so if you find a glaring mistake, PLEASE /msg me. Most of this is written from what I learned from a part time job, where I had the opportunity to sit in on this year's 1394 Developers Conference. It was pretty interesting, and I got paid (a little) for listening in on sessions that normally cost $800 a head.

1: Apparently, the Firewire brand name is more recognized in North America, while in Japan, i.Link is the most well-known name for IEEE 1394.

2: The coolest application I saw of 1394 at this conference was a prototype amplifier that had a 1394 port. The system was set up for 5.1 surround sound, with music coming from a DVD audio player. There were hundreds of those familiar red and white RCA plugs in the back, but they were all empty. One 1394 cable took the signal for all six channels from the DVD player to the amplifier. The only other wires ran to the speakers or to the electrical socket. Cooler than that though, was when they connected the amplifier to a notebook. The notebook picked up an IP address, and the demonstrator went to a homepage served out of the amplifier, where he could control volume and the equalizer using the computer. That was cool.

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