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Article: The FireWire Controversy

by on October 19, 2008

I decided I’d wait the weekend before writing this article to collect some outside opinions and gather my own thoughts. Last Tuesday, Apple’s new MacBook marked what many are considering the next step in the slow death of FireWire. First, it was the iPods, followed a few years later with the MacBook Air. Is this port really necessary?

Three years ago the same issue was brought up when Apple removed FireWire from iPods. This made some sense to cut costs and allow everyone’s favorite music player to work right out of the box with both Macs and PCs. Previously, iPods required PC folks to buy a separate USB/FireWire combo cable or get a FireWire port on the PC. This move, although hated at first, allowed iPod peripherals to work one way, and iPods to work with host computers one way.

A few years later with the first MacBook Pro, we saw a few changes. FireWire 800 was not included in the earliest of Apple’s Intel-based professional notebooks, only reappearing a little later. This showed that Apple was a little less-than-confident that FireWire 800 was actually going to be the next step. It never made it to any consumer-grade Macs.

Last January when Apple showed off the ultra-small MacBook Air, many complained that it was not a true Mac because it did not include FireWire. This trend continued throughout the MacBook family with both the MacBook and MacBook Pro losing their FireWire 400 ports, and the MacBook Pro keeping its backwards-compatible-with-a-cable FireWire 800 port.

Why the change of heart for this odd-shaped high-speed connection?

One theory is that many vendors have backed USB 2.0. Although FireWire 400 is actually faster in most cases than the 480Mbps USB 2.0, USB 2.0 is a port people are already familiar with. It’s around in the PC world a lot more than FireWire and can allow a computer to have one I/O port for everything. Just like in the Beta/VHS wars, convenience won out over the technically superior technology. Its death was predicted even in 2007.

I’m Mac geek (duh), and also do quite a bit of video work. I edited quite a few things using a Sony DV camera and Final Cut Pro on a Mac mini. I was rather impressed that I could do this with such low-end equipment (the camera was actually pro-level and not mine). Would I buy a new MacBook? Probably not. Just like all the people that are complaining, it is not geared towards me. Sure, I’d love a $1000 notebook with every feature, but I decided to conduct some unscientific research regarding the FireWire port.

Most of the people I know who have MacBooks have not used the FireWire port. Some have had their MacBooks for over 2 years and have never connected anything there. Some have external USB drives for backup (because that’s mostly what Best Buy/Wal-Mart/Circuit City sell). None knew about Target Disk Mode. My point is, FireWire is not something that people even think about nowadays unless they need it. It’s not a consumer-grade connection.

The argument is that people need FireWire for legacy equipment. I’d buy that. However, most external drives can be converted to USB 2.0 and most camcorders are moving towards USB as the only way to get things to a computer (as they are file-based rather than linear tape). Those who do music editing and production who have specific devices probably are trying to do pro-level work on consumer-level equipment.

My point is, there’s a reason why the iPods lost FireWire. There’s a reason the first batch of iBooks didn’t include FireWire (only USB 1.1). There’s a reason why the first iMac didn’t include FireWire. It was added later to consumer-level Macs primarily for video work, but with most cameras moving towards USB, the port just won’t be getting as much love from the average Mac user.

Before you start writing nasty comments, think about it. Apple may indeed know best in this case—I’m sure someone was paid a considerable amount of money to research if people really use FireWire enough to need it on every MacBook. It seems like those who have been using MacBook Airs for the last 9 months are getting along quite nicely without it…as are the millions of iPod video, touch, nano, and iPhone users. Although it isn’t an outdated technology (as was the case with serial, ADB, and SCSI), FireWire may just not be all that necessary for many users.

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