Is Firewire the future of consumer electronics?

The problem is cabling and connectors. Dozens of cables with a handful of different types of connectors are required to interconnect the various components. (My home theatre receiver alone has more than three dozen jacks using four different types of connections.) But IEEE-1394, the ultrahigh-speed serial data connection Apple Computer developed and branded as Firewire, is now making inroads in the PC market and promises an end to the cable morass that consumer electronics has become. (You'll also see Sony products in the market using the IEEE-1394 interface using that company's i.Link brand.) The 1394 Trade Association, a group of consumer electronics and computer companies, is working hard to develop a common specification -- not to mention consensus among competing manufacturers. Its goal: to enable IEEE-1394 to become the standard by which all consumer electronics products interconnect.

The organisation intends that within the next two to three years, almost every common audio-visual component will have just two Firewire connectors (data in and data out) instead of multiple audio and video jacks. This covers receivers, TVs, speakers, recorders, set-top boxes, game consoles, and the like. And interconnecting all your components will simply require running two thin IEEE-1394 cables between the pieces of your home entertainment system.

Homes Rapidly Go Digital

The application of IEEE-1394 in the consumer realm is, according to industry sources, a logical outgrowth of the rush to all digital sources, including audio CDs, DVDs, and digital satellite and cable TV feeds. Future developments will also include digital television and radio broadcasting.

In today's typical home entertainment setup, many signals that are already digital, such as those from CD and DVD players, have to be converted to analog, which decreases sound quality. And marginal cables or dirty connectors can further degrade the signals. IEEE-1394 should do away with all of these problems.

As Firewire becomes a consumer electronics standard, it will hasten the demise of analog recording tape as used in audio cassette recorders and VCRs to store and play recordings. (Digital tape, as used in the current generation of camcorders, is likely to be around for a while, however.) Instead, digital components such as DVD-RAM drives and hard drives will become the standard way to record and play digital content. Panasonic, Replay TV, Sony, and TiVo are among the companies that released proprietary hard drive TV recorders this year. Recently, Quantum, a leading manufacturer of hard drives, brought standardisation closer to reality by introducing an IEEE-1394 hard drive specification for consumer electronics.

Shedding Light on Firewire

The technical details of the IEEE-1394 hard drive spec are proprietary and available only to the members of the IEEE-1394 working group. But Bentley Nelson, Quantum's director of strategic marketing, says the key lies in the circuit board on the drive.

The circuit board has "the intelligence to understand audio and video commands" such as record, play, fast-forward, pause, and others, Nelson says. And hard drive recorders aren't constrained to only play or record, as tape is. A hard drive recorder, using the IEEE-1394 Function Control Protocol, can play back one program while recording another, or even several others, at the same time.

This built-in intelligence and standardisation will enable manufacturers to quickly design new products such as TV recorders because they won't need to custom-design interfaces for drives, Nelson says. And it should also allow easy upgrades as hard drives continue to get larger. Panasonic expects to ship a TV recorder using Quantum's new IEEE-1394 drives within the next three months, although details of features and pricing aren't available yet.

The road to all-digital nirvana in consumer electronics still has some bumps, though. One problem is digital television. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that all television stations convert to all-digital broadcasting within the next few years. Already, some stations in major metropolitan areas broadcast digital signals on otherwise-unused UHF channels. Still, a continuing standards battle about which digital standard to use has yet to be resolved.

Analog to Digital and Back

Then there's the problem of mixed analog and digital signals. Quantum's Nelson admits that the IEEE-1394 A/V specification isn't designed to be easily integrated with existing analog components. And it isn't likely we'll see consumers tossing out thousands of dollars worth of existing analog components for the promise of digital.

Integrating analog and IEEE-1394 digital components requires adapters, which makes a setup more complex and negates many advantages of an all-digital system. Sony recently released the DVMC-DA2, a $US399 box that converts analog video, such as the output of a standard VHS video recorder, to IEEE-1394 digital video. The quality is lower than true digital video, but it's a start. The real advantages of the new system will only go to those who essentially start from scratch.

How much will all this cost? Nobody seems ready to answer that question. Manufacturers won't talk about capabilities or pricing, mainly for competitive reasons. In theory, IEEE-1394 in the consumer realm should be so easy to design and so cost-effective to build that prices should be low. But the laws of supply and demand remain in effect. The first products are likely to be aimed at affluent early adopters who insist on the latest and greatest at virtually any price. Expect prices to fall over the next few years.

Meanwhile, members of the IEEE-1394 Trade Association are confident that the era of true plug-and-play, all-digital consumer electronics is just over the horizon.