Apple's 1394 stance spurs talk of design workarounds
CUPERTINO, Calif. Angry 1394 proponents are considering designing around Apple patents in a future version of the high-speed interface after Apple insisted on crafting new and costly terms for licensing the bus architecture. The company denies anything has changed in its licensing plans for the interface it developed as Firewire.
Developers crafting 1394B, an 800-Mbit/second version of the interface, said they are accelerating plans to adopt new signaling techniques. Called "Apple-free B" by one source, the approach may borrow signaling techniques from Fibre Channel that do not rely on Apple's intellectual property (IP).
"As an attribute of the new 1394B technology, many of the Apple patents no longer apply," said Michael Teener, one of the original 1394 architects at Apple and now chief technology officer of Zayante Inc. (Scotts Valley, Calif.), a 1394 infrastructure company. "Future work may indeed remove all Apple dependencies, but this would be done largely for technical reasons."
Teener believes that 1394B could be crafted to be backward-compatible with today's 400-Mbit/s bus without using Apple patents. "But it would take two years to spin it up to deployment," he said.
Meanwhile, Apple has ignited a firestorm of reaction among 1394 developers. Many think the demands are excessive, and some say they could stop the 1394 bandwagon. PC makers are just adopting the interface, which is also becoming a key link for next-generation consumer devices.
"The Wintel crowd-Intel, Microsoft, HP, Compaq-is furious," said one source. "The real impact of the royalties is on ASICs that incorporate 1394 IP, and there's big animosity developing."
Under the new licensing structure, according to several 1394 sources, some companies have been asked to pay $1 per port, though licensing deals are said to vary widely.
"You can't have Apple make more money from a 1394 chip than the semiconductor maker does," said one. "Eventually Apple will have to realize this is just not going to happen."
"It's a lot of money for something that you want to put on every PC in the world," said Dal Allan, president of ENDL Consulting (Saratoga, Calif.). "That's an industry where people will change suppliers to save $1. This is just one more thing that will slow 1394's adoption."
"I'm not aware of any changes to the program in place since it was adopted [by IEEE] in 1995," said an Apple spokesman. "We have a fairly standard licensing program in place for Firewire, similar to Sony's for licensing MPEG and Dolby's for licensing audio. It covers over 30 Apple patents. We don't talk about the details of the program. Every licensing agreement is different."
While several consumer-electronics companies have existing 1394 licenses with Apple, "the PC guys are getting in real late and are getting whacked," said Teener. "This could hurt smaller PC companies."
Sources noted that Sun and Texas Instruments were among the first licensees for 1394-along with Fuji Film, Molex, Philips and Sony-who paid a flat $7,500 royalty fee for Apple's 1394 patents. Some companies also license Apple's 1394 IP-i.e., circuit designs for 1394 chips-reportedly for a per-port royalty of "a lot less than a buck a chip."
Disk drives, of course, represent the largest market for a peripheral interface, and the 1394 community has been hoping to attract drive makers via a faster 1394B spec being developed. But, said Ted Deffenbaugh, director of strategic marketing at drive-maker Quantum Corp. (Milpitas, Calif.), "It's desperately hard to establish an interface standard if there's even a perception that it's costly or closed."
Still, some developers appear unfazed. "I'm encouraged by how far the market has developed of late," said Charles Andres, group manager for I/O technologies at the market-development engineering group at Sun Microsystems (Burlington, Mass.) and a 1394 Trade Association board member. "It's an express train that can't be stopped by this. I suspect this will pass quickly."
Texas Instruments is, likewise, unfazed. The company is said to have shipped nearly 1 million 1394 chips in the fourth quarter of '98 and hopes to ship up to 10 million 1394 chips this year. "TI and Apple co-developed 1394 in the early 1990s, and we have a clear legal position for TI and our customers for current and future generations of 1394 silicon," said Larry Blackledge, TI's worldwide business manager for bus solutions.
Additional reporting by Rick Boyd-Merritt