Taiwan vendors embrace 1394 networking

Taiwanese vendors have embraced the IEEE 1394a high-speed networking standard at Computex Taipei 2001 while the core elements of an even faster technology -- and a competitor -- wait in the wings.

An IEEE 1394a connection, available now, can provide a transport data at up to 400M bps (bits per second) over up to 15 feet of cable. Its major application is for the consumer market, with Apple Computer Inc. offering IEEE 1394a connections to multimedia peripherals under the FireWire name and Sony Corp. selling IEEE 1394a links for its digital home entertainment products under the name iLink.

The standard is set to take a big leap forward, to 800M bps over distances of 100 meters, with the 1394b specification, which the 1394 Trade Association last month introduced to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) for final approval. But USB (Universal Serial Bus), another widely used peripheral connector technology, is also stepping up from its current 12M bps and in its second incarnation, USB 2.0, will just overtake the current 1394 standard with a maximum throughput of 480M bps.

A 1394 Pavilion on the show floor at Computex, a first for Asia's biggest annual computing hardware show, featured products from 21 local vendors out of a total of 84 members of the Taiwan 1394 Forum. The products on display both there and around the show ranged from desk cameras and 35mm film-scanning devices to external hard disk drives and flat-panel displays. Most desktop and notebook PCs being displayed by Taiwan's big equipment manufacturers were equipped with a 1394a port.

Many vendors also displayed 1394 connectors, cables and hubs, including one concept hub from Macpower Peripherals Ltd. that was built in to a small Godzilla toy.

As 1394b and USB 2.0 approach completion, vendors here hope to take the lead in supporting the faster technology.

"Instead of following, we want to contribute. We want to lead," said Paul Hsu, chairman of the Taiwan 1394 Forum, at a press conference Monday. The group plans to hold a "plug fest" in Taipei in October to establish the interoperability of 1394b products under development in Taiwan.

Both Texas Instruments Inc. and Agere Systems Inc. are working on chips for 1394b, according to James Snider, former chairman of the 1394 Trade Association, who spoke at Monday's press conference.

The essential difference between 1394b and USB 2.0 will continue to be the difference between a networking protocol and an interface protocol, Snider said. Unlike a networking system that connects several devices as equal clients, a USB connection must be linked to a running PC or other computing device to work. An IEEE 1394 connection can operate between any two devices with 1394 interfaces, he said.

"You're not going to wire your house with USB 2.0, whereas you can with 1394," said Snider.

In addition, Taipei-based chip maker Via Technologies Inc. plans to complete a processor for 1394b in the third quarter and expects to see it in volume production for system makers early next year, said Eastwood Wang Yi, a field application engineer for Via.

Via's President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Wenchi Chen voiced strong support for 1394 and had few kind words for USB 2.0, at a press conference Tuesday.

"1394 will be a great connector, especially for the consumer space. It's already there; it's a well established infrastructure," Chen said.

As for USB 2.0, Chen said, "We're putting effort on it, we have a design team, we'll try to make it available whenever it's needed. But our message to our competitors or partners in the industry is, if together we can make this disappear, it will be good for us as well as for the rest of the industry." Competing standards cause confusion and raise costs, he explained.

"For each application space, hopefully, there is only one standard," Chen said. When there are multiple competing standards, "it's very confusing, not only to the end users, but it's very costly to support it."

However, most vendors across the show floor here seem more focused on USB 2.0 than on 1394b. For one thing, it will be available sooner: OEM vendors said they expect to have USB 2.0 products out within one or two months, whereas the most optimistic said they hope 1394b products can ship by the end of this year. Double H Technology Co. Ltd. said it will ship a four-port USB 2.0 interface card for PCI slots in July, priced at $28 for distributors and about twice that price for consumers.

One European executive at a vendor of peripherals and PDAs (personal digital assistants) said he has ready customers for a two-port USB 2.0 adapter on a PC Card for notebooks. "I've got two or three customers who keep pushing me for this product," said Kevin Pugh, European sales executive for Billionton Systems Inc., in London. The adapter will probably ship within two months and carry a consumer price tag of about US$60, he said.

One stumbling block for USB 2.0 is operating system support, according to several hardware vendors.

Microsoft Corp. does not support USB 2.0 in Windows ME, the most recent version of the consumer desktop operating system, or in the current beta version of Windows XP, said Nick Chien, a product manager at Taiwanese OEM PC maker AOpen Inc. Without Microsoft OS support, including the interface technology on a motherboard would be a waste of resources.

"We're confused. (Clearly) USB is not a top-level priority for Microsoft," Chien said. Other vendors echoed Chien's concern.

Microsoft will not include support for USB 2.0 in the initial release of Windows XP, due in late October, but will make drivers available later to add to the operating system, according to an April letter to customers from Carl Stork, general manager of Windows hardware strategy. However, Microsoft demonstrated a USB 2.0 driver at the USB 2.0 Developers Conference in May and said at the time the driver support would be available before the end of this year, according to a statement from the USB Implementers Forum.

As for 1394b, Chien believes demand for that technology will be limited to niche markets.

The 1394 trade association is also looking toward wireless as an extension of the wired technology, allowing 1394 signals to be transmitted over IEEE 802.11b 11M bps wireless LANs. In addition, the group is working with an automotive industry group to establish 1394 as the standard technology for wiring electronic devices in cars.

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