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Summary:

In September 2009, Intel demonstrated a new technology, dubbed Light Peak, that many were hailing as USB’s successor. Thirteen months later, and CNET predicts that Light Peak will be featured in new Macs in 2011 when it finally arrives. I’m not so sure about that.

intel-light-peak-laser-on

In September 2009, at the IDF Conference in San Francisco, Intel demonstrated a new technology dubbed Light Peak, a super high-speed optical fiber data transfer system that, overnight, every tech pundit in the industry was predicting would be the successor to USB (I was one of them). Thirteen months later, and CNET reports that Light Peak is due to arrive early next year, and will potentially be featured in new Macs in 2011.

Headed for a Format War?

It won’t be long before pundits are talking about a “format war” between USB 3.0 and Light Peak. I don’t think there will be a format war, and I certainly don’t believe it’s an issue that will even cross the radar of the average consumer. Rather, I think we’ve reached a point in personal computing where blistering speed and capacious storage have become less important (to most users) than ease-of-use and simplicity.

Take a look at USB 2.0. It’s dominant today for several reasons, but mostly because it’s adequate. Widespread adoption of USB was something of a struggle in the early days, and we can thank Apple for having the courage (and stubborn streak) to “aggressively encourage” customers to adopt it. But Apple seems willing to go in the other direction, too, withholding technologies in favor of something simpler – or more popular.

Simple Trumps Flexible

Consider the ExpressCard. Until last year, it was supported in all MacBook Pros. Today, the only model in production sporting an ExpressCard slot is the high-end 17-inch version. Most people buying that model are atypical consumers, and instead tend to be media professionals or power users, for whom ExpressCard is actually useful. For the vast majority of consumers snapping up MacBooks and iMacs, that slot was an idle curiosity. So Apple opted to replace it with an SD card slot. The technology is slower and less flexible so, from a certain point of view, this represented a step back. But for the average buyer, it was a great leap forward.

A process as seemingly straightforward as connecting a digital camera to a computer becomes an exercise in frustration and anxiety for a surprising many: old cables are piled in tangled heaps from the depths of drawers, USB cables are jammed into Ethernet ports, 54-in-One memory card adapters are manhandled and USB keys wrenched unceremoniously from machines.

The experience of the average, everyday computer user varies wildly from that of the tech-savvy individual, as anyone who’s worked at a technical support hotline can attest.

Whose Definition of “Better?”

In light of this, Apple’s decision to incorporate the SD interface into their best-selling computers makes perfect sense. There are no cables involved. There are no similarly sized ports to confuse or confound the uncertain user. SD cards might not represent the cutting edge of technology, but they are the right technology for most people.

But surely people want better? The definition of “better” isn’t static, though. To some, like me, “better” is all about power consumption, bandwidth, pipes, protocols and things like “API’s” and “Controllers”. My mom’s idea of “better,” on the other hand, means “easier,” and though she might not be able to tell you what would be easier, she can certainly tell you what’s not, and ExpressCard is one of those things.

This is representative of the typical user, and Apple not only knows this, but is dedicated to realizing a computing future in which, if anyone is going to be left wanting, it won’t be my mom.

No Wires, Nor Ports

Light Peak, if it is going to be adopted anywhere, will see use as part of the guts of a machine, providing incredibly wide bandwidth between internal components. You’ll never see a Light Peak port anywhere, if Apple’s vision of the future of computing comes to pass.

You won’t, in fact, see any ports. Already SD cards can wirelessly broadcast data to a waiting computer, and it’s only a matter of time before this technology makes its way into most of our portable devices. Apple is bound to lead the way. Let’s face it; the stage is set. Apple has a plethora of portable devices packed with flash-based storage and radio assemblies. The advent of technologies like Wi-Fi Direct make a future without hardware ports even more likely. Wires definitely don’t figure heavily in the streaming future I alluded to earlier this week.

Finally, don’t forget aesthetics; I imagine Steve Jobs pretty much hates those ugly ports breaking the otherwise flawless, minimal lines of his beautiful MacBooks. As notebook internals get ever smaller, the ports themselves will begin to dictate the minimum thickness of future MacBooks. How long do you think Mr. Jobs will tolerate that barrier to better design?

So as the Light Peak story begins to do the rounds once more, ask yourself what Apple is more likely to do: adopt a new standard for which speed is the primary “benefit,” or aggressively pursue a vision of “better” that geeks might lament, but most embrace? I guess it comes down to this: Between moms and geeks, which is Apple’s biggest market these days?

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  1. As a former member of Intel’s original USB team, I think your story is right on the money. USB 1.0 solved a major problem of the mid-90s – how to easily yet intelligently connect medium-bandwidth devices to PCs. It’s succeeded due to its ease of use, and Apple adopting the technology (quietly, I might add) to enable its original vision for the iMac was a tremendous enabler.

    At the same time, I would also agree that Light Peak is likely to be limited to an internal inter-chip communications vehicle. Why? The answer is simple – fiber optics don’t carry power, needed by many current USB devices. I, for one, cherish USB for ridding me of the need to have multiple power adapters and cords for my cell phone, bluetooth headset, digital camera, and video camera. Even moving to wireless connections would be no advantage if I had to carry chargers for all of these!

    - Dan Hays -
    Director, PRTM Management Consultants

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  2. My personal feeling is that there is still going to need to be a wired variant available.

    I’m sorry, but I really don’t want to move my HD video off my video camera wirelessly, it takes long enough with a wired connection.

    A wireless device is going to need power, most usb sticks don’t carry there own power supplies.

    The advantage of been able to plug in my phone to a usb port for recharging is actually a bonus. I only need to carry one power adapter (particularly for over seas travel) and I get power hub.

    Yes, I agree, there will be times when been able to wirelessly connect devices together will have its advantages, but can also see a lot of issues.

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  3. If we’re looking out into the future, then can we include inductive charging as a possible method that would allow us to ditch the ports AND the chargers? Yes, I know present day commercial inductive chargers, like in my toothbrush, are slow to charge and take up a lot of room (compared with a diminutive digital camera) and heat up the device a bit…but we’re looking into the future right? Might inductive charging tech get to a place where it would work well for these devices?

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  4. [...] Liam argued yesterday, Apple is aiming for the consumer market these days, which is why it should come as no [...]

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  5. I think the Mac world you’re predicting is still a ways off. Until wireless technology advances to the point of pushing massive amounts of data at high speeds, faster than wireless-N, we’ll still need wires. And lets face it, USB 2.0 sucks. It’s a necessary evil that needs a major upgrade. The short-term options are USB 3.0, Firewire S1600/S3200, or Light Peak. Steve’s already said USB 3.0 is out and most people don’t realize there’s anything beyond Firewire 800. Light Peak gives a huge speed/bandwidth boost now as well as future expandability. Either way it will be interesting to see how things unfold.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

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    1. “Steve’s already said USB 3.0 is out and most people don’t realize there’s anything beyond Firewire 800.”

      What concerns me more is that many people don’t even know about FireWire 800, and most manufacturers don’t seem to have much interest.

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  6. I’m certainly not holding my breath for Light Peak. But we’ll see USB 3.0 eventually — once Intel starts including it in their chipsets, Apple will have no reason to exclude it from the bigger notebooks, iMac, and Pro. The great thing about USB 3.0 is it’s backwards compatible with USB1/2. So the ‘average’ consumer wouldn’t even need to know/care that USB 3 is on their machine.

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  7. Intel is now part of iMac and other Apple computers, so I think Intel have great future! But, rumors tells that Intel buy Mcafee because hardware does not have future! Who will know…

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  8. When Apple tries to force me into their cloud by leaving ports off their desktops, I will, albeit reluctantly, switch to somebodies computer. After my experiences with Mobile Me, I will not trust Apple or anyone else with my important data.

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  9. ??????

    This article didn’t make a lot of sense.

    Not sure why easy and lightpeak wired cables don’t go together.

    Wireless ain’t coming anytime soon . It’s too slow and we have to charge our devices anyway so they will always be tethered.

    Lightpeak will make things easier because the average person won’t have to know a usb port from a firewire port from a monitor port from an ethernet port even. I think that’s part of the promise of LIghtpeak.

    LIghtpeak will also have so much bandwidth that you can just have one port on a machine if you wanted to instead of 4 or 5 USB ports. ONe lIghtpeak port will have much more bandwidth than a 4 or 5 USB ports. You could even replace all your ports on your Mac with 1 LightPeak port. Don’t forget how much Apple loves them external adapters – cha-ching.

    The other reason to have lightpeak is lightning fast transfer rates. Very handy for today’s portable devices which sync to our computers. And hopefully it will be more like FW in the handshaking that goes on.

    Very handy for backing up data to ever faster storage devices like SSDs also.

    So this notion we’re not going to see ports and lightpeak is only going to be inside Macs and we’re going to see wireless transfers is ……not the case. Maybe farther down the road.

    IN the meantime expect to see lightpeak ports in Macs.

    They’ll carry power over an accompanying power wire btw if power is needed.

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  10. [...] Apple’s MacBook line has been gradually moving to meet these expectations, with improved battery life, faster flash-based memory/storage for very rapid boot times and, with tomorrow’s launch of the Mac App Store, a seamless and user-friendly software discovery and management system. It’s only a matter of time until even the MacBook Pro and iMac lose their optical drives altogether, with USB and Wi-Fi networks filling the gap until even USB is replaced. [...]

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