It was disturbing to read recently that the Earth's north magnetic pole is drifting away from North America so fast that it could end up in Siberia within 50 years. As a compass needle points to the north magnetic pole, not the geographic North Pole, bewildered ramblers will soon be wandering onto motorways and over cliffs. There's even a chance of a geomagnetic reversal where the north and south magnetic poles actually flip if the strength of the Earth's magnetic field continues to decrease.
Similar world-turning twists are quite common for Mac users. We've experienced seismic shifts from Classic OS systems to OS X, and in June we shuddered with the news of Apple's magnetic flip from PowerPC to Intel processors. We're quite used to readjusting our compasses 180°, although we love a really good moan about it first – before forgetting the old days and, indeed, soon deriding them. That's the thing about revolutions – they might spin our heads for a while but they keep the world turning all the same.
The latest clamour of angry disapproval revolves, as ever in the beginning, around a rumour. Some of these rumours turn out to be false, but many come true in the end. It's even widely believed that Apple leaks such ‘bad news' in order that by the time Apple CEO Steve Jobs stands up on stage and announces it we're all ready to whoop and cheer the death of whatever we were weeping over a few weeks previously.
The latest rumour has it that come January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco Steve will show-off a new iBook that runs on an Intel processor … but lacks a FireWire port!
WHAT? No FireWire port? NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!
FireWire, legend has it, was invented by Apple, pioneered by Apple, and made an industry standard by Apple – finding its way onto just about every decent video camcorder on the market, as well as scanners and hard drives of all shapes and sizes. It absolutely walked all over the competing USB transfer format and was more than a match for even USB's super-successor USB 2 – despite a declared lower maximum speed. Then it doubled in speed itself from 400Mbps to 800Mbps, crushing USB 2's now feeble 480Mbps.
Why would Apple kill its young in favour of an inferior (and frankly evil) technology? Because, spit the Mac conspiracy theorists, USB is an Intel technology – and so with Apple and Intel now joined at the chip, FireWire, which had the audacity to be better than an Intel invention, must die.
The rumour springs from the fact that Apple has effectively dropped FireWire from its latest iPods – the nano and video iPod sync only via USB, although they will still charge using a FireWire connection. This has left some Mac users miffed because their USB 1.1 computers are left syncless. Funnily enough, it's always the owners of older Macs who get stiffed.
However, the reason Apple moved from FireWire to USB 2 on its iPods has nothing to do with cozying up to Intel and little to do with the superiority of one interface over the other. Not only does retaining just one connection format save money in component costs, it's the iPod's slow hard drive that's the real limiting factor – not the speed of the interface.
Apple dropping FireWire from the iPod has led to the suggestion that Apple's forthcoming Intel-based iBooks will lack FireWire altogether – and that next-gen PowerBooks will retain just the high-speed FireWire 800 standard. This would leave those of us with plenty of FireWire devices high and dry. Or would it? Sure, if you have an external FireWire hard drive, scanner and digital camcorder you'd have to be nuts to buy a USB-only iBook. But the PowerBook would merely require a compatible FireWire 400/800 cable adaptor.
When Apple unveils its Intel-flavoured laptops it will undoubtedly attempt to differentiate the iBook and PowerBook more than they are currently. The fact that IBM has failed to come up with a G5 chip that is cool enough to run in a portable means that G4 processor speeds are close enough not to make too much of a difference – according to Macworld Lab tests, there's just a 10 per cent performance gap between the consumer and professional laptops.
Apple could create a far-superior PowerBook with all the latest tech bells and whistles, or dumb down the iBook but make it ultra cheap. A low-cost iBook with no FireWire would certainly mark it out as different from a fully laden PowerBook and add an appealing alternative for people who need just the computing basics – but it would leave the consumer portable fairly crippled.
FireWire has some fundamental benefits that USB lacks. You can boot from FireWire drives, for starters. USB is host-dependent, whereas FireWire allows simple, speedy peer-to-peer connections with multiple hosts or no host at all. Without FireWire, there's no Target Disk Mode any more. But lower-end computer users live easily without such things.
However, without FireWire there's no DV. Without DV there's no iMovie. Without iMovie what's the point of iDVD or a SuperDrive? As a low-cost iBook would be unlikely to include a built-in webcam, it would be further hurt by not working with Apple's FireWire-based iSight, so out goes iChat. Suddenly, all the fun consumer stuff appears to rely on FireWire, and a cut-down iBook looks rather crap.
As a way of saving on component costs dropping FireWire appears an overly expensive option in terms of functionality – unless Apple has re-engineered a bunch of its hardware and software solutions to work as solidly with USB.
Dumping FireWire at the same time that it's becoming increasingly popular on PCs and even TVs and PVRs would appear crazy given Apple's tentative steps into the home-entertainment arena – but that hasn't stopped Apple making pioneering/daft decisions before. Few of us cried when Apple dropped its old ADB, serial and SCSI interfaces, because they were replaced with better and less proprietary solutions. In the same way, our planet's magnetic field is an invaluable aid to navigation – but today's satellite-based Global Positioning System offers pinpoint accuracy compared to the wobbly old compass needle.
On average, geomagnetic reversal and shifting magnetic poles occur about every 250,000 years, and there's no evidence that when it's happened in the past it has seriously affected life on Earth. Already we're preparing ourselves for the annual disappointment/elation nexus when Steve Jobs steps onto the keynote stage at Macworld Expo on January 10. MW