Long time Users Facing yet Another Dope Slap From Apple?

by Chris Seibold Dec 12, 2005

A recently performed experiment involving a cat that had achieved thermodynamic equilibrium undergoing rhythmic gyrations at Apple Matters labs proved one thing: You can’t swing a dead cat without smacking into a rumor that Macs will slowly be losing FireWire support. Specifically, there are numerous reports that the next iteration of the iBook will lack FireWire connectivity. The Intel based PowerBooks, on the other hand, will supposedly feature a single FireWire 800 port as a nod to the pro users out there.

The idea that Apple is slowly going to be phasing out FireWire (and if it disappears on the portables you can bet it will soon follow on the desktop) is disagreeable to say the least. Judging by the recent lack of FireWire options on the newest iPods (shuffle, nano, iPod with video) while the notion may be disagreeable the change also seems likely.

At this point, the knee jerk reaction is to strenuously aver that Apple will never abandon FireWire. The astute will note that Apple actually earns money they on every FireWire connection sold whether it is on a third party hard drive enclosure, a digital video camera or customized Dell Computer. Yeah, and Apple will never switch to Intel.

The next argument against dropping FireWire will concern the performance of FireWire as compared to USB 2.0. There is a strong case to be made that FireWire is much better than USB 2.0 but there is also a strong case to be made that AMD chips, or even, gasp, PowerPC chips are better than Intel’s desktop offerings. So clearly, performance isn’t always the deciding factor for Apple.

Finally, a plea will be made that Apple must continue FireWire support to appease the owners of older digital gear that relies on FireWire for connectivity. Imagine, for example, you own a Canon GL2. If USB 2 is your only option, you might be tempted to buy a PC or something. Supporting legacy hardware is surely a great reason to keep FireWire around, right? Examine, if you will, the ports on the original iMac. In short, any argument as to why Apple will keep FireWire around to benefit current Apple users does not take into account that Apple ‘s recent history.

Someone out there is bound to defend Apple’s FireWire shedding move, much like some defend omitting FireWire from the new iPods. They’ll liken FireWire’s quick exit to he legacy ports the iMac once shed and opine that it is time for the Mac to get with the times. The iMac comparison, in this case, is wholly unworkable. When the iMac eschewed the conglomeration of ADB and GeoPorts there was a legitimate reason to do so: besides Apple and a scant few printer makers there was an ever-increasing dearth of peripherals available for the Mac. By wholly embracing USB Apple reinvigorated the Mac peripheral market and gave users more options in hardware than they had had for years. That is not the case with FireWire. The FireWire standard may not be as prevalent as USB but it certainly popular enough to be sustained.

Just discussing FireWire’s availability neglects the performance questions, which are just as relevant when comparing the current situation to that of the original iMac. USB was more technically advanced than the ports it replaced on the original iMac; this is not the case with FireWire and USB 2.0. FireWire is more capable than USB 2.0 so removing FireWire ports won’t be a technical hop forward but rather a largish step backwards. One comparison is valid: The switch to USB was originally greeted with caterwauling and hand wringing. Yet, the dispassionate observer could clearly discern the reasons behind the move. Such is not the case with FireWire.

You have to wonder why Apple would consider such a move. To save a few bucks is the most obvious reason but that doesn’t seem too likely when you remember that FireWire ports sell FireWire devices and that Apple gets some cash whenever someone uses the word FireWire (I think I owe Apple $90 for that last sentence). Hence, from a monetary point of view, the inclusion of FireWire ports is not a financial burden to Apple and may even make a little cash for Apple in the long run. Of course, people always want things smaller and lighter so perhaps it is an effort to slim down the profile of the next generation Apple portables. This seems unlikely as well. The PowerBook is rumored to retain one FireWire port and the PowerBook, if for no other reason than to justify the price premium, has to be a little thinner, a little smaller and a lot better looking than an iBook.

Whatever the reason, you can be assured that Steve will find a way to spin the exclusion of FireWire ports in a compelling manner. Likely, he’ll say that Apple’s research shows that no one really used the FireWire ports on the lower end Apple laptops and that USB is the industry standard. Two problems with that reasoning: First, Mac users are obviously not interested in what the industry standard is or they wouldn’t be using Macs. Secondly, a lot of people, creative people actually use the FireWire ports on their iBooks. You probably (fortunately) didn’t see The Transporter 2, and you probably (also fortunately) missed the pre-movie hype fest on one of the lesser-known cable channels. Those, like myself, unfortunate enough to see the hype fest recall that the show focused, predictably, on the hand-to-hand combat in the movie. The choreographer would take a digital camcorder, record himself performing the fight scene, edit the footage in iMovie and play it back for the actors on an Apple iBook to give them a sense of what he was looking for. That is but one high profile example, others abound. So remember this when you hear the spin: There are plenty of people who use iBooks for iMovie and those people depend on the FireWire port.

At the end of the day, one suspects, the likely exclusion of FireWire will cause a lot of consternation among Mac users but will go largely unnoticed in the end. The entire affair will be just another example of Apple telling the faithful how great a feature is, getting them dependent on said flower of technology, and then doing an about face and expecting the user to foot the bill. Apple might be well served to remember that these things build ill will over time, especially among people who have been faithful to the Mac for years.

The story of Burrell Smith leaving Apple comes to mind at this point. Burrell, the electronic savant behind the design of the original Mac, wanted to quit Apple but every time he attempted to leave Steve would convince him to stay. Finally, Burrell concocted a surefire scheme to leave Apple. He would walk into Steve’s office, release the hound (so to speak), and urinate atop Steve’s desk. Thus, Burrell felt, he would be assured of getting his release from Apple. Unfortunately, one of the greatest moments in the history of urination never took place. Steve had heard of Burrell’s plan and when he walked into Steve’s office Steve said “Are you gonna do it? Are you really gonna do it?” I’d like to ask that same question of Apple: “Are you gonna do it? Are you really gonna do it?” Thing is, the question really isn’t necessary, I’m pretty sure Mac users will end up being the desk in this situation.


  • While I agree that getting rid of Firewire is a bad idea for performance reasons, I think that technologies disappear for a variety of reasons all the time. I screamed that it was too early to get rid of the floppy drives when the original iMac came out myself. Whenever this happens there is always an adjustment period where certain users are going to feel screwed but that is unavoidable when you want to implement change of any kind. In this case I find it extremely minor. If the next Macs that came out did not have Firewire, I would simply use up one of my available PCI slots and buy a $40 firewire card. I think that for the people that rely on Firewire it is an easy transition this time around. There are lots of work arounds.

    Gabe H had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 40
  • I really, really hope they don’t do this.  It’s more akinto losing SCSI that the switch from ADB to USB.

    I don’t it’s an easy transition.  Not unless all machines have a slot that can take a FireWire card.  That means iBooks, Mac minis and iMacs as well as Powerbooks and PowerMacs.

    There was a mistake made relatively recently by trying to push FireWire too hard, and sticking with USB1.0, when PCs were all getting USB2.0.  That means a lot of people with adequate machines have to connect to new iPods with USB1.0.  So I think the problem really wasn’t so much ditching FireWire from the iPod, but NOT adopting USB2.0 as soon as it was available.

    Adding USB2.0 didn’t necessarily mean that FireWire sohuld be dropped.  It needed to be retained, and still needs to be retained for use with all those GL2s(or XM2 if you’re in Europe), and for all those audio interfaces.

    For a lot of things, it makes no difference if they’re USB2 or Firewire.  For realtime stuff like audio and video,  FireWire remains a superior standard, and should be retained in all Macs, or all Macs should be made such that it is an easy after-market addition.

    Hywel had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 51
  • I’ve had some strong words to say elsewhere about not believing this one.

    But I guess, worst case scenario, I could get a PCMCIA card with FW ports. That is, if Apple include a PCMIA slot in the next iBooks…

    With so many MAC users (yes I meant to capitalize that - I don’t care what PC users have) with DV Cams and External HDDs (and whatever else) that are FW dependent, getting rid of FW would be dangerous for Apple. Not that we’d all switch to Windows, but rather we would postpone as long as possible our next purchase.

    DV Cams and External HDDs aren’t a dime a dozen. If I have to replace them when I replace my computer, it could double my outlay. So instead of spending AUD$2000, I’d be spending AUD$4000. Forget it!

    Unless Apple provide some way to connect FW devices, FW-less iBooks will lose a whole market segment.

    This one, I can’t see happening.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Pfff, I’ll believe it when I see it. Otherwise:

    - As far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, you cannot boot a Mac from USB2. Even people with iBooks need backups.
    - Home video via iMovie is very popular amongs consumers (-> iBooks & e & iMacs) and all the DV-cams come with FireWire. Maybe someone will bother to check the specs of those new HD camcorders, I bet they use FireWire too.
    - Installed base. If you have a big fat array of FW-drives, be it for backup or video-editing, you’ll want to keep on using them even with your next Mac. Dropping FW would mean you either have to buy a whole load of new enclosures that are not as performant (USB2) or not upgrading your Mac. Apple is not interested in lost sales.

    What I *could* imagine is Apple coming out with a notebook so incredibly thin that it could not host a FW port (unlikely though ). Such a machine would likely also not have an optical drive and therefore require a docking station - which would have FW - and/or substitute the ports with a Dock Connector + FW adaptor dongle.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Chris, I see we just had the same thoughts at the same time smile

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 371
  • I really doubt they’ll drop Firewire support. If they do, it would kind of frustrate me, but the only reason I use the port on my mini is for my iPod mini. So, if I get a new iPod, the FW port on my mini would go unused. It isn’t like I really need one anyway, but just having it there is good.

    brofkand had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 6
  • I agree with Chris(4) There are way too many devices that use firewire for apple to get rid of it. DV cams being the prime example. If apple wants to reinvest in RD to convert iMovie and FCE to usb they are not going to get rid of firewire anytime soon. It would be a bad business decision all around. Maybe when OS X goes full intel bunaries in and drops support for ppc will be see a paradigm shift like that.

    Stephen Golubieski had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Maybe they are just dropping firewire 400 support. A Mactel with USB2 and Firewire 800 would be a pretty nice machine.
    Most everything would work and with the addition of a hub would work well.
    I’m not ready yet to say the sky is falling.

    mcloki had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 25
  • I actually understood and supported the reason to remove Firewire from iPods. But I wouldn’t be able to support any reason Apple could give to remove Firewire from Macs.

    mm on an iPod Nano matters. mm on a laptop doesn’t. And the cost must be a difference of cents; the cost to build and manufacture specialist firewire cards for users would far outweigh any benefit in cost savings from taking out the firewire chip.

    EVERY video camera (not just consumer camcorders) use Firewire. I use Firewire. Many of my friends (including one with an iBook) use Firewire. This just sounds like a Malicious rumor someone started who was upset about Firewire disappearing from their iPod.

    Apple have done dramatic things in the past, with removing floppy disk drives it shocked many, and that is the first thing people think of why this firewire removal might be realistic too. HOWEVER there is a massive difference. Software stopped appearing on Floppies and was solely coming out on CD-ROM at the time Apple stopped putting Floppy drives in the Macs - this is a good enough reason to remove Floppy Disk drives. But it’s different with Firewire: like I already said, ALL video cameras come out with Firewire connections - it hasn’t got a replacement yet. And until new video cameras are dominated by a new connector, Apple won’t remove Firewire ports.

    And as for the idea they’d include just an 800 Firewire port… well that’s just ridiculous. If they were going to remove anything it would be that!

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 299
  • I think people have blown this rumor up to much, for as indeed is mentioned before, people wouldn’t be able to boot from a firewire HD anymore, or use ‘Target-Firewire’ to load their laptops HD on a different computer, or use their Firewire-only equipment anymore.

    Marius_Th had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 11
  • I agree.  I currently support over 65 iBooks and PowerBooks and routinely boot from an external FireWire drive to perform maintenance, updates, etc.  Unless Apple can allow USB2 to boot up a Mac, it’s a non-starter for me.  I also agree that should this come to pass, we won’t be purchasing any non-FireWire Macs until a viable alternative pops up.

    Dave Marsh had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 44
  • Can an iBook be booked into Target mode and used as an exteral drive via USB2 just like Firewire? As a film student (two huge markets for Apple combined into one), this was a way to move footage around from lab computers to home, plus having it to work with on the laptop… Target mode was a big deal.

    Also, can someone explain why USB2 is so much inferior to Firewire? (I’m not asking this as a troll question, I’m asking this looking for a technical response.) If they both provide the same power, and USB2 is 480kbps vs Firewire’s 400, where do the issues come in? Could not a very simple adapter to convert USB2 to FW400 be made (similar to Microsoft’s USB1 to PS/2 adapter that ships with their mice) for backwards compatability if the power and speed are so comparable?

    Kris Thom White had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 18
  • I meant “booted” into Target mode… damn typos

    Kris Thom White had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 18
  • Kris:

    No. It can’t. I was just thinking about target disk mode in relation to this subject. It seems like just one more piece of evidence that Apple thinks of firewire as worthwhile, and the same goes for booting from an external drive being possible only by firewire.

    However, it might be easy for Apple to change these things (make target disk mode USB2 compatible, and enable booting from USB) in the forthcoming 10.4.4 update. Therefore if Apple really has decided that firewire should be phased out or (as I think is more likely) is relegating an incarnation of firewire to the Pro line of macs, neither of these arguments actually hold.

    Your second question is “why is USB2 inferior to firewire?” Firstly, we need to be convinced that this is actually the case. This site:
    gives some pretty condemning evidence that it is.
    From http://www.usb-ware.com/firewire-vs-usb.htm
    “FireWire, uses a “Peer-to-Peer” architecture in which the peripherals are intelligent and can negotiate bus conflicts to determine which device can best control a data transfer.

    Hi-Speed USB 2.0 uses a “Master-Slave” architecture in which the computer handles all arbitration functions and dictates data flow to, from and between the attached peripherals (adding additional system overhead and resulting in slower data flow control)”

    It seems to be this ‘overhead’ that causes the actual speed of usb2 to be slower than firewire. The Wikipedia entry on usb2 puts this down to CPU limitations, although this site:
    ...seems to show that the cpu utilisation difference between the two standards is minimal.

    I suspect that the real reason is something about the master/slave interaction. To quote [http://news.com.com/5208-1041-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=4991&messageID=30250&start=-1]:
    “USB transfers protocols are also not ideal for video work (a staple of Macintosh usage). Indeed due to those same protocols USB CD burners could be a bit flakey until USB 2.0 speeds were achieved.”

    And from the addonics website:
    “The 60 MBytes/sec is the raw speed of the USB 2.0 standard. But there is overhead in actual data transfer due to error correction, hand sake between the device and the controller, BUS latency plus other software hardware overhead. The maximum achievable throughput you get may only be 60% to 70% of the maximum depending on your system hardware and the applications you are running.”

    But it’s more like 40-50% for many applications.

    Benji had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 927
  • FireWire is so much better than USB 2.0 for bandwidth-dependant devices. Digital video transferring? Large file transfers? OS X’s Migration Assistant? These things all benefit from FireWire.

    The iPod? If sacrificing FireWire makes it slicker looking or potentially cheaper, then fine. I don’t own an iPod, so I don’t care.

    Considering what I do with Macs on a hobby level, I’d hate to lose FireWire. Plus, I have an external CD burner that uses FireWire. Looking out for friends and family: my dad has a FireWire scanner and a Digi 002, my best friend has a DV camcorder (not a nice one) and a FireWire based DVD burner. Do we all want to have to buy new devices to use on new Mac purchases (yes, I realize old Macs can be kept. raspberry)? No way!

    I wonder if Apple even pays attention to sites like this (and more importantly, all of our ranting and arguing within the comments.)

    Waa had this to say on Dec 13, 2005 Posts: 110
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