Apple does not determine the fate of technology standards

TechRepublic member dcolbert examines Apple's discontinuation of a few technology standards, including the floppy drive, the built-in modem, and FireWire. He argues that Apple's precedence doesn't have a major influence on the IT industry.

In the March 2009 issue of Wired Magazine, Steven Levy wrote an article entitled "An Ode To Vintage Ports," where he discussed the decision of Apple to remove FireWire ports from the Macintosh. He offers some interesting insight about how I/O technology continues to change, evolve, and become more user-friendly, convenient, and inexpensive.

But that isn't what caught my interest in this article. Instead, it strikes me as a great example of what I'm going to call the "Apple Bias" in the media in general. Apple seems to enjoy a certain untouchable status among journalists.

In the article, Levy claimed, "It's often [Steve] Jobs who pulls the plug on a fading port or standard – FireWire is just his latest victim."

You simply cannot elevate the art of Job Idolatry much higher than this. Levy must envision Jobs sitting on high upon a throne in a mansion somewhere in the San Jose area, deciding at whim which technologies live and die. Did you get this memo? FireWire is dead, and it's because Steve Jobs decreed it so.

Not surprisingly, Apple also considers itself in charge of the fate of technology standards. Levy quoted an Apple spokesperson, "We're often the first company to adopt innovative technologies, and also often the first to discard them." To be fair, this is true. Apple likes to gamble on the bleeding edge, adopting new, unproven technologies and then throwing them out when it appears that they aren't going to be winners.

If you exist in Apple's world (which is less than 20% of the total market share), then you might see things this way. But the truth is that the PC market has had far more influence on how technologies have or haven't been adopted, accepted, or discarded. In fact, one thing that you can probably get Linux and Windows fans (the other 80% of the market) to agree on is that is the most significant part of the market isn't Mac.

So, what standards have Apple supposedly nixed? Levy pointed to the disappearance of the floppy drive and built-in modem, and then he said that FireWire was "doomed" when Apple dropped the technology from video iPods. Let's take a closer look at these assertions:

The floppy drive

The problem with Apple abandoning the floppy was that the rest of the PC world was still using it. This decision didn't cause any real discomfort for PC users, but it was an inconvenience for Mac users. I can't count how many times I would see groups share information on floppies, and the Mac users would be out of luck. "Can you e-mail that to me later? I can't read a floppy – my iMac doesn't even have one..."

PC users didn't care, and the floppy survived for a long time thereafter. In fact, USB floppies are still a reality for some PC users. Ultimately, Apple didn't kill the floppy – it was a dying technology that Apple walked away from prematurely.

The built-in modem

I don't think Apple can take credit for this one either. Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and even Verizon killed the built in modem, not Apple.


Apple bet on FireWire when the industry adopted USB. Apple didn't decide to "end" FireWire – it lost to USB. While USB 1.0 and 2.0 didn't have as much throughput as FireWire, that didn't matter for the things FireWire was mostly used for. With the arrival of eSATA, FireWire became even less relevant.

However, billions of PC users didn't even blink an eye when Apple's new PCs did away with FireWire. They kept using (and will continue using) – myself included – their FireWire-only handicams to film their kids and family vacations on their PCs, which either still have FireWire or offer aftermarket FireWire cards.

When Apple comes out with a new device, Levy has to buy it, including new peripherals. He ended his article by talking about the clutter of obsolete equipment sitting in his closet, joined by his beloved IEEE1394 FireWire devices and cables. Levy said, "One day, USB paraphernalia will join them. It'll probably be Apple that pulls the plug too."

Sure, Apple may very well remove USB from their devices first, but that won't mean that USB is dead, because neither Apple nor Steve Jobs have that kind of influence in the industry. It'll simply mean the reign of the USB standard is coming to an end, like all other PC standards before it.


Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

Editor's Picks