Gadget obituary: FireWire, RIP

On 14th October 2008, Apple announced its new MacBook range. FireWire was conspicuous by its absence.For the first time this century, all Apple's cons

For the first time this century, all Apple's consumer notebooks were FireWire free. Even the MacBook Pro machines, aimed at video editors and graphics professionals, shunned the familiar D-shaped 6-pin FireWire 400 cable in favour of a lone 9-pin FireWire 800 port.

It marks the sad end of one of Stuff's favourite interfaces. (Yes, we have favourite interfaces. What else do you think we talk about over coffee?)

IEEE 1394 - fondly known to its friends as FireWire or i.Link - was conceived back in the 1980s. Although it was developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - with contributions from Sony, IBM, Thomson and Texas Instruments - the project was originated by Apple. The big idea: to replace the tempramental SCSI connection with a high-speed, hot-swappable interface to connect PCs to fast hard drives and video equipment.

The standard was ratified in 1995 and first appeared on Mac as a custom configuration in 1997. By 2000, every Mac had a FireWire port. But Windows PC manufacturers ran scared of the royalty and hardware costs (around $2 per system) and opted for the cheaper - but much slower - USB.

Sony was the only other PC maker that threw its weight behind FireWire. Sort of. Sony - being Sony - made its own version with a small 4-pin connector that only transferred data, not power. The new incarnation was dubbed 'i.Link', and it became the standard way of getting video off MiniDV digital camcorders.

FireWire's demise began with the arrival of high-speed USB 2.0 in 2001. More recently, USB-toting hard-drive and flash-memory camcorders destroyed FireWire's monopoly on video.

2008's MacBook Air was Apple's first FireWire-free computer for 8 years. Now the rest of the MacBooks have made the move, and other Macs will no doubt follow soon (though FireWire 800 is likely to linger on  as a ultrafast storage connection on Pro machines).

So why should we mourn the departure of FireWire?

  1. Because it performed. At up to 400Mbps in its original form, compared to USB's miserly 12Mbps. And now up to 3200Mbps using FireWire 800's new 1394b's specificaiton. But it's not just the numbers: FireWire was designed for high-performance, time-sensitive applications like video. USB was designed to plug in a mouse.

  2. Because it networked. Daisychain up to 63 devices together - or use FireWire to create a proper computer nework at speeds of up to 3.2Gb without having to worry about ethernet crossover cables.

  3. Because it ressurected. Dead Macs can be revived by plugging them into another Firewire port and restarting while holding down the 'T' button, which puts the device into 'target disk' mode, allowing you to read and copy data off your dead Mac's disk. 
  4. Because it looked nice. I'm possibly the only person in the world who finds the D-shaped FireWire 400 connector aesthetically pleasing. But its shape certainly makes it one of the easiest connectors to plug in with your eyes closed. Don't tell me you haven't tried…