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  • Another Look at What Apple Has Taken Away

    October 20th, 2008

    Back in the early days, your expandable Mac came with technologies that other personal computers didn’t always contain, such as NuBus for peripheral cards for graphics and other tasks and SCSI for such devices as external hard drives and scanners. There were also the proprietary ADB ports for input devices.

    But with the introduction of the iMac in 1998, huge changes were heralded. The iMac depended on USB, a standard that had actually been introduced in the PC but had gone virtually nowhere. Suddenly, you had to go out and hunt for conversion interfaces for your older mouse and keyboard, if you didn’t want to use the ones Apple provided. There was, of course, the requisite Ethernet for networking.

    Now, an all-in-one computer with minimal expansion possibilities didn’t need NuBus, although you had to wonder about the lack of SCSI. Then again, when you considered all the problems you might encounter when you’d daisy chain several SCSI peripherals to your Mac, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.

    With the huge success of the iMac came an explosion of USB devices, and, once the 2.0 standard was finalized, an external hard drive could actually give FireWire a run for its money when it came to performance. FireWire, in fact, didn’t debut on the iMac until the DV model arrived, although it did appear in the famous Blue and White G3, which had a form factor that would, with minor changes and color alterations, remain for high-end Macs for several years, until the G5 arrived. And, by the way, it didn’t have SCSI either.

    At first, there was a proliferation of SCSI adapters so you could continue to use your legacy devices. But you only see SCSI in high-end applications these days, and even then not so often.

    In any case, you had to assume that FireWire was in for the long haul, although not a lot of PCs adopted it. After all, it was not just an industry standard, but one that Apple invented. What’s more, it was widely employed on camcorders and audio and video breakout boxes. So you had to think it was downright essential.

    What happened next? Well, the iPod went all USB. Since the majority of iPod sales are actually to PC users, who usually don’t have FireWire, this was an advantage. More to the point, USB is a tad cheaper, and not supporting two transfer technologies means Apple can shave costs even further on the iPod and remain competitive.

    When Apple went to Intel processors for all Macs in 2006, the first iteration of the MacBook Pro lacked a FireWire 800 port. All it had was regular FireWire, and you can bet the video editors and other content creators who depended on Apple note-books for onsite production complained loudly. The faster FireWire port returned in subsequent models.

    But when the first rumors that the latest MacBook refresh would contain a new case design, likely aluminum, but might lack FireWire, you had to wonder what Apple was thinking about.

    Now we have the reality, and the best explanation you get so far comes from one of those famous one-line pithy comments from Steve Jobs himself, that camcorders have included USB 2.0 for several years. As far and he and Apple are concerned, FireWire is no longer needed for a consumer-grade note-book computer. Besides, that omission shaves precious production dollars from the cost of building a MacBook. When you add in the price of a glass-based touchpad with integrated button, an LED backlit display and more powerful integrated graphics, not to mention the unibody aluminum enclosure, you have to assume that Apple’s profit margins will still decline; that is, until production ramps to full capacity.

    As far as the MacBook Pro is concerned, there is but one FireWire 800 port, but you can get FireWire 400 adapters, so perhaps you can live with that particular omission.

    So is the handwriting on the wall now? Despite all of Apple’s hard work lo these many years, does this mean that FireWire will soon join ADB as another dead technology?

    Probably not, at least for a while. Apple realizes that professionals use MacBook Pros and they will not buy the new model if they can’t have FireWire. But it’s certain that continued use of FireWire products will dictate where Apple goes next. If the next USB standard, USB 3.0, is, as promised, up to 10 times faster, it’s quite possible the need for FireWire, which will also become speedier in the next revision, will be further reduced.

    One thing is sure: Apple seems to know where the market is heading, and, if they see traction, they will be at the forefront. But if the new technology is still in flux, or its future success is not yet certain, Apple may pass it by until things settle down. An example is Blu-ray, although I rather like high definition DVDs, even if the technology will, in the end, probably be replaced by movie downloads.

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