Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sony’s Summer Surprise: a bit less than expected.

In the summer of 1995, Sony introduced their first digital camcorder, and co-incidentally, the first end product to have FireWire in it.  However, there was something more… or something less.  Rather than using the standard “6 pin” connector, the camcorder had a new connector.  A “4 pin” connector.

The IEEE 1394-1995 standard had not even finished the approval cycle and Sony was already changing it….and  changing it unilaterally.  So much for standards. 

Unknown to anyone but their connector supplier, Sony had designed their own connector.  It was much smaller, with fewer pins inside; they left out the power and ground pins. 

The design was dreadful.  For one thing, they moved the parts that wear out from the cable to the connector.  With 1394-1995, when the cable/connector wears out, you buy a new cable.  With the Sony 4-pin cable/connector, you have to replace the connector inside the camcorder.  The small connector was much more difficult to see so plugging it in requires adequate lighting.  It is also less forgiving, so you have to line it up precisely or it will not plug in.  And finally, when it starts to wear out, it is so shallow that it tends to fall out with the least little bump.  People hated the 4-pin connector.  However, this was Sony and this was the first product, so a grateful industry rewrote the standard to include the 4-pin connector and that became 1394a.

So why would Sony do this?  Their claim was they did not want their customer to try powering a device over the FireWire cable.  This would run down the camcorder battery and cause customer dissatisfaction.  There were also some concerns about noise being generated by the power.  However, it is my theory that they knew that camcorders would rapidly shrink in size and a smaller connector was necessary for the palm-sized camcorders on their drawing boards.

 Sony’s commitment to the 4-pin connector was strong. All their notebook computers used the 4-pin exclusively as well as other 1394 enabled products.  This lead to some strange decisions on the part of Sony.  For example, in 2000, Sony wanted to power an external DVD player over the cable while using FireWire for the video.  Rather than designing in the 6-pin connector, Sony designed yet another proprietary cable which incorporated a separate connector simply for power.  This became known as the “Sony 4+2”.   When asked why they did not just use the 6-pin, a Sony insider replied, “I don’t think Japan knows the 6-pin exists.”

FireWire YouTube Videos by Jeff Cat

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