Intel’s Light Peak was Apple’s Idea

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Last week at the IDF 2009 Conference in San Francisco, Intel unveiled a new next-generation data transfer technology dubbed Light Peak. It’s basically an optical subsystem comprised of lasers, modules and probably the odd Flux Capacitor here and there. The outcome is transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps. (By comparison, the upcoming USB 3.0 standard will provide maximum throughput of ‘only’ 3Gbps. So-called “Hi-Speed” USB 2.0, in case you’re not yet impressed enough, manages a measly 480Mbps.)

Furthermore, Intel says the technology can support multiple devices on the same port simultaneously, without the need for adapters or extension dongles, and maintain data parity at cable lengths up to one hundred meters. Wow.

So it’s heart warming to know that Apple originally devised the concept for Light Peak. Engadget reports that Steve Jobs presented the idea to Intel’s Paul Otellini back in 2007. Apple was interested in developing an insanely high-speed interoperable standard capable of shifting huge amounts of data and, “…replace the multitudinous connector types with a single connector (FireWire, USB, Display interface).”

Intel Light Peak Laser On

Speed Demon

The blistering super-speed of Light Peak makes it ideal for driving bandwidth-intensive devices and peripherals on the desktop — say, multiple HD panels — but the real world benefits to ordinary consumers (after all, most end-users do not have high-end desktop hardware) would obviously lie in handheld integration. Because the technology supports multiple devices on the same port, it means a portable device could potentially do-away with the tradition of providing several different I/O ports. Doesn’t this sound typically Apple? Say goodbye to Ethernet, USB, Mini DV, FireWire, optical audio in/out, HDMI and so on. Light Peak offers to replace them all with a single, super high-bandwidth alternative. Fewer ports means fewer components and smaller, thinner devices requiring less power. Presumably, they would be cheaper to manufacture, passing those savings down to the customers in the shape of lower prices. That said, I wouldn’t expect Apple to factor that into its premium pricing philosophy. Apple’s not exactly known for its low, low prices.

So what does it all mean in practical, everyday terms that, you know, matter to ordinary people? Well, right now, it means almost nothing since the technology is still in the developement stage. According to Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky, Apple intends to introduce the new standard (yep, it’s not just a new toy, it’s a whole new standard) in late 2010. Beyond that, 2011 might see low-power variations appear in handheld devices.

The concept behind Light Peak is typically Apple. It offers a real, practical — and aesthetically pleasing — solution to the age old problem of cable-mess while introducing impressive new technology to the industry. Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs are, it seems, almost pathologically opposed to seeing buttons, ports and other bits and pieces on their devices. In fact, Ive said of the MacBook’s redesign; “We’ve refined and refined every detail in the service of the user, just to get rid of complexity. If something doesn’t need to be there, it’s not there. I don’t know how we could make something any more essential, any simpler…”

And for ultimate minimalism, look no further than the iPhone. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Ive and Jobs considered a zero-button design at one point in the iPhone’s R&D infancy.

According to Engadget, the roadmap for Light Peak, as it stood in 2007, “…includes Light Peak being introduced to the iPhone / iPod platform to serve as a gateway for multimedia and networking outputs.”

Light Peak would offer an incredible data transfer platform to replace the USB standard used with all iPods and iPhones today. Imagine transferring an HD movie from iTunes to a device in mere seconds, or your entire iTunes music library in about a minute. And there’s no reason why OEMs can’t build Light Peak right into their chipsets and motherboards, allowing for ever-higher bus speeds.

Apple was smart going to Intel with the proposal for Light Peak. Introducing a new toy is relatively easy, but introducing a whole new platform is much harder. By handing the task to Intel, Apple can ensure this new standard makes its way into more hardware than Apple products alone.

USB 3.0 has been a long, long time coming, and many OEM’s are, presumably, invested in long-term licensing deals which allow them to build USB support into their products. At launch, Light Peak would be an expensive new platform (those licenses won’t be cheap!) that initially only Intel’s first-tier partners might support (Engadget tips the hat toward Sony as a possible early-adopter). Most OEMs will likely “wait and see” if the technology proves stable, reliable and economical in the long run. But at least they will consider it. They might not give it any attention at all if it were to appear as an Apple-only technology.

And goodness only knows if we’re about to see the start of another format war, pitted between USB 3.0 and Light Peak 1.0.

One More Thing

Engadget adds that Intel has plans for a new low-power Atom chip, due to launch next year, that will be positioned to compete with chips currently found in mobile devices such as iPhones, netbooks and set top boxes. Says Engadget, “The indication we’ve been given is that that product (coupled with the Light Peak standard) could provide the basis for some “big” MID news in 2010.”

I’m gonna watch the evolution of Light Peak carefully, and I think you should, too. Sure, it doesn’t (yet) promise the wireless goodness of the more mature and proven USB 3.0 standard, which, at the very least, won’t require end users replace all their peripherals with Light Peak-enabled alternatives. But it does offer the kind of wideband, high-speed convergence our increasingly interconnected devices cry-out for.

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