1394: Coming Soon to a Living Room Near You

For the first few days in July, the engineering elite held forth at the posh Fairmont hotel in San Jose to discuss IEEE 1394. Also known as FireWire (Apple Computer), or I-Link (Sony), 1394 is being hailed as a "breakthrough technology for anyone in the world who uses a PC and a Television."

Compared to last year's inaugural event, this year's 1394 Developers Conference appeared twice as large, with a bevy of sophisticated professional, computing, and consumer demos. A dozen seminars alone focused on bringing 1394 into the living room, with titles ranging from "Changing the A/V Product Planning Paradigm" to "Digital TV/Set-Top Box Specifications."

Last year there were no press facilities, and we spotted nary a single journalist in the halls. This year, an eager pack of reporters was treated to a press luncheon and private demos. While most of the booths were still sporting bare circuit boards and technospeak, the exhibits leaned heavily toward the consumer market.

Samsung displayed a 55", 1080i HDTV receiver connected to a prototype HD VCR via 1394. The $8k TV wasn't the focus of the demo, however. Samsung Engineer Kevin Harms was showing off their new networking technology, called the "Home Wide Web," which is modeled after the internet using compact software "browsers." Harms was able to plug and unplug various components into the system while it was live and instantly begin controlling any connected hardware from the main screen employing a point-and-click GUI interface similar to that used on the World Wide Web. Each component has its own control commands that are offered to all display devices on the network, making it easy for a consumer to instantly begin controlling that new satellite dish or game console that is attached with a single cable.

Which brings us to the crux of the 1394 promise: a single type of plug shared by all digital entertainment and computing devices that might be used in a home. In his presentation, Digital Harmony's Mark Bridgwater pointed out that "we currently have a cumbersome integration of devices in an entertainment system employing too many remotes that seem designed by engineers for engineers." What 1394 offers the consumer is "control of the system, not the device."

Each presentation proclaimed 1394 as the holy grail of convergence; industry analyst Gary A. Hoffman predicted that, by the end of 1999, 40% of all mid-priced PCs will be suitably equipped. Several speakers pointed to the new crop of 1394-endowed set-top boxes and DTV products under development as the likely reason consumers will buy their first 1394 product, with surround-sound components and communication devices following shortly thereafter.

But whether 1394 takes off soon or is supplanted by yet another new "standard," consumer convenience is steadily gaining ground as a driving force for new technologies.