A new method to implement the next-generation IEEE 1394b interface may return the technology to the PC, dramatically escalating sales of the supporting components.
Presenters at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference 2000 (WinHEC) in New Orleans last week asked chip suppliers to develop a PIL-FOP method of designing 1394b chips. The approach won public support but as yet no product endorsements from Intel Corp., which cut the 1394a implementation from its chipset road map more than two years ago.
Behind the scenes, vendors are jockeying for position. The 1394b specification is in the final stages of ratification, but companies like Lucent Technologies Inc. have had 1394b device silicon for two years and are waiting for final approval to bring their chips to market.
The suggested method is similar to the approach Intel has endorsed to separate the digital and analog portions of PC audio in its Audio Codec '97 (AC'97) specification. Intel and other companies believe that a 1394b implementation should include a digital PHY Integrated Link, potentially integrated into the chipset, and a Fan-Out PHY (FOP), a separate chip that could be built onto the motherboard or external devices to allow backward-compatibility with the existing 1394a standard.
"It's the only method to implement 1394 on the PC," said Steve Bard, a member of Intel's Mobile Computing Group.
Although declining to comment on product plans, he said Intel remains committed to 1394 on the PC and will help to support the technol-ogy through software, design engineering, and other services.
IEEE 1394a has become the de facto interface for consumer electronics, and Apple Computer Inc., whose "FireWire" technology formed the basis for the industry-standard IEEE 1394 specification, has made IEEE 1394a a key component of its iMac digital-video-editing stations.
Dell Computer Corp. sells a similar product as part of its Dimension PC line, but uses a dedicated IEEE 1394 add-on card to minimize cost.
But 1394 has not taken off on the PC because no current PC chipset integrates it, forcing 1394-enabled PC designers to pay a higher bill of materials.
"IEEE 1394 contains both analog and digital, and PC-core-logic designers absolutely hate analog technology," said Michael Johas Teener, chief technical officer at Zayante Inc., formed when Apple's FireWire team departed almost en masse when the company declined to develop the technology.
Furthermore, two different connectors were designed for PC and consumer-electronic devices, he said. Dell, for example, has chosen to use a IEEE 1394 add-on card because no current PC chipset includes 1394 technology, and ruled out buying motherboards with a discrete 1394 chip as well.
"We always look at 'take rates,'" Dell's term for the rate at which customers buy PCs fitted with a new technology, said Brian Zucker, technology evangelist at Dell's small-business and consumer group.
Since only a small percentage of Dell's customers have asked for a custom-designed, 1394-enabled motherboard, the company has decided to include an add-on card.
"But we're interested in cost, and such an [integration] approach would clearly save cost," Zucker said.
Dell's product offers an encouraging sign for 1394, said James Snider, chairman of the 1394 Trade Association in Dallas. "Apple gets in on cutting-edge stuff; Dell designs what most people want," he said.
The IEEE 1394b specification offers what's known as "S800" or "S1600" data rates, either 800 or 1,600 Mbytes/s. That's four times as fast as the 400-Mbyte/s transmission rate of 1394a, also called 1394-1995, while maintaining backward-compatibility.
PIL-FOP advocates suggest that a S800-capable PIL could be integrated into the chipset with a minimal use of gates, and that a variety of FOPs could be sold for different applications. While each FOP would require a 1394b port to talk to the host, designers could mix and match 1394a and 1394b ports, adding bilingual capabilities as well. Such FOPs could be built into devices, but also into a docking station's "power brick" or even into the cable itself, Bard said.
One key differentiator among FOP suppliers will be developing so-called "border" chips, the name given to bilingual FOPs that route data to legacy devices. 1394b-only FOPs will tend to be grouped into a "cloud" topology, but will require some connection to the outside world.
"That's going to be difficult to do," said Mark Richman, 1394 product-line manager at Lucent, Allentown, Pa., which showed S800 silicon two years ago when the specification was at its. 0.6 revision.
Sources said Philips Semiconductors is also developing its own 1394 silicon rather than second-sourcing chips from Lucent and Texas Instruments Inc.
Two connectors will continue to be used, but only to distinguish bilingual capabilities from beta-only connectors; samples are available from Molex Inc., presenters at the WinHEC conference said.
New multimode glass-fiber cabling will also be needed to enable transmission distances of 100 meters.
The PIL/FOP approach could also bring back the concept of 1394-enabled hard disks inside the PC, analogous to the Device Bay concept Intel, Compaq Computer Corp., and Microsoft Corp. floated about four years ago and which died a quiet death shortly thereafter, Zayante's Teener said.
It's doubtful the approach would work because of the preference toward entrenched SCSI and ATA interfaces, and the forthcoming Serial ATA interface, which shares the serial approach of 1394, Dell's Zucker said.