Everyone knows that Microsoft has embraced FireWire (IEEE 1394), but Microsoft’s keynote opening the 1394 Developer’s Conference in Redmond, WA today outlined how critical FireWire is to Microsoft and the device and computing community’s future.
Microsoft has adopted a vision called eHome, which is similar to Apple’s Digital Hub vision. The eHome is a home that Microsoft sees based upon numerous devices communicating with each other over many different networks. Rather than using one network and one protocol, Microsoft believes that it makes more sense for different software and hardware protocols to be able to seamlessly communicate with each other. FireWire has a “bright future” in this eHome because it can control devices over TCP/IP. This allows the PC to act as the controller for these devices, and also allows the PC to be the gateway for FireWire devices to work with other devices.
The keynote began with Mike Wolf, Senior Industry analyst with Cahners In-Stat, discussing trends in home networking. Wolf said that he is highly confident in FireWire growing in a number of areas, most notably high-end consumer devices, video editing, storage and industrial and automotive markets. However, Wolf is less confident in FireWire penetrating into the business PC arena. Wolf noted the prevalence of business PCs to be data entry machines. Thus, FireWire’s penetration into the business PC market will be much less.
As to home networking, Wolf believes that this market is at the knee in its curve, with revenues expected to continue to grow strongly despite a weakening economy. However, Wolf noted that it is a tough market, with large players like 3Com, Cisco and Panja having recently exited. Wolf suggested that these failures are due to a greater need for home consumers for technical support, price, consumer confusion and an overall technology fatigue of consumers today. Also, Wolf suggested that the rollout of Broadband Internet access has been slower than expected — approximately 10 percent of households have broadband access according to In-Stat statistics.
Currently, 8 percent of households have a home network — up 2 percent from last year. Put another way, two million households added a home network last year. Wolf predicts that 11 percent of households will have a home network by mid-2002. These networks traditionally use Ethernet (Category-5) cabling or 802.11 wireless networks like Apple’s AirPort. However, Wolf believes that home users bandwidth needs will grow as they do bandwidth intensive things like digital content creation on their home networks. Wolf suggested that wireless standards would not be able to keep up with these needs and still be able to breech the many walls needed to maintain a house-wide wireless network.
So, what will fill the gap? “1394 is the most elegant technology,” said Wolf. The plug-and-play ease of use of FireWire is attractive to consumers, as is the protocol’s ability to connect with consumer electronics devices. However, he hazarded that FireWire networking is dependent upon home users’ uptake of whole home wiring and the ability of FireWire to piggyback on existing technologies. Ideally, TCP/IP will be able to handle the latter problem.
Next, Carl Stork, General Manager of hardware and evangelism at Microsoft, took the stage. Stork believes that FireWire has a “powerful role” to play in Microsoft’s emerging strategy.
Stork first outlined the state of 1394 support on the numerous different Windows operating systems saying, “we’ve been there and we are going to stay there.” Microsoft has had FireWire support in Windows since Windows 98, and the level of FireWire support in the OS continues to grow.
Microsoft feels that FireWire’s greatest strength is its ability to deliver the PC as a “free resource” to developers and consumers. For example, connecting a FireWire digital video camera can give users far more than just a place to download images. FireWire equipped devices can take advantage of a PC’s keyboard and monitor to help control the device. Additionally, a FireWire device could connect to a PC and gain Internet access to download drivers or do other things. If developers use the PC’s resources via FireWire, then they do not have to add those hardware features to the device.
“Retailer’s like 1394,” said Stork. As an example, Stork said that Circuit City uses FireWire to connect consumers with other devices — often resulting in additional sales. “1394 provides new marketing opportunities to retailers,” said Stork.
He also chided the 1394 Trade Association to adopt a more unified naming standard. He suggested that the varying 1394 names — FireWire, 1394, iLink– are serving to confuse consumers, and he advocated unified industry standards for both the PC and consumer electronics industries.
There was a brief demonstration where Stork sowed off TCP/IP networking over FireWire on a Windows XP PC. He simply plugged a FireWire cable between a Sony laptop and a desktop PC and voila, a network connection was created instantly. The laptop could share files and surf the Internet through the desktop PC without any configuration. Stork said that the role of a PC with 1394 is to connect anything to anything.
Finally, Stork showed off Microsoft’s Tablet PC and explained how critical FireWire was to it. The FireWire port on the Tablet PC is used for emergency booting, full digital video editing and other AV roles and as the general high-speed connection for the device.
Next and last up for the well over two hour keynote was Michael Toutonghi, Vice President of Microsoft’s eHome division. This division’s job is to research and develop technology for a connected home environment. To achieve this goal, Microsoft maintains a mock eHome — a fully connected vision of the home Microsoft expects three to six years in the future.
As a demonstration, Toutonghi opened up a browser window that managed all aspects of the eHome. It was capable of managing mundane household items like blinds, cameras and temperature throughout the eHome. More importantly, Toutonghi was able to play a Windows Media player file on a FireWire equipped stereo using TCP/IP over FireWire. Toutonghi said that the eHome’s IP based network could use 1394 devices that use IP over 1394. Additionally, a user in the eHome was able to change Toutonghi’s music selection back to the original by using a 1394 equipped television to also control the stereo. All of this command traffic went through the PC via TCP/IP over 1394.
“Microsoft believes that the eventual home network will be made up of many different networks,” said Toutonghi. These different networks are made up of all of the different hardware protocols used in the home, from cable to wireless. Even though there will be many different technologies, Microsoft wants developers and consumers to see one network. The different hardware and software protocols should be seamless. 1394 is already at the forefront of this, and its intelligence at translating between the PC and the device allows PCs to take on many of the processing burdens of managing this home network.
The keynote was definitely a Microsoft keynote, but as the conference is being held at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, the master will have his way in his house. However, Apple is putting on a high-profile showing at the conference. Tomorrow, Apple is expected to have a two-hour long session on implementing 1394 on Mac OS X as well as many smaller sessions on other topics. MacCentral will bring you the details from these events as they happen.