The new Apple Thunderbolt cable comes with a $49 price tag, which is a bit pricey, and the first Thunderbolt accessories available require you to buy one separately. Teardown company iFixit took a peek inside one of the new cables and came up with a good reason why Thunderbolt costs so much.
Each cable has a controller at either end, which is used to regulate the speed of data transfer and boost the signal to make Thunderbolt’s extremely low-latency transmission possible. Each end contains 6 chips, including 2 Gennum GN2033s and 4 smaller ones, making for a total of 12 chips in each cable. This makes the Thunderbolt cable an “active” cable that has its own internal firmware and allows it to manage the high two-channel independent 10 Gbps transmission speeds.
But it also isn’t cheap. And for right now, Apple is the only game in town when it comes to Thunderbolt cable suppliers. As Ars Technica points out, the situation bears some similarity to the early days of FireWire, which was initially very costly and limited to Apple because of unfavorable costs when compared to USB. Apple didn’t help things by initially requiring licensing fees for the use of the FireWire trademark and logo. Ars argues that the similar high costs of Thunderbolt could limit its ability to gain a real foothold.
I see the similarities between Thunderbolt and FireWire, but I think it’s too early to assign them the same ultimate fate. For one thing, Apple is well aware of how the FireWire situation panned out. The Mac maker isn’t likely to repeat the same missteps with Thunderbolt if it really does intend for the tech to have wide applicability. Second, Thunderbolt is like FireWire, but they also can’t really be compared in terms of what they allow a user to potentially do. Display connectivity, along with speeds that basically allow Thunderbolt to act as an external PCI connector, give it a much broader scope in terms of applicability. Want to set up a server with upwards of 50 terabytes of storage running through a Mac mini? Easy (and relatively cheap using the new Pegasus RAID drives), once an updated Mac hits the market. Plus there’s always the scenario of the computer-on-a-drive that can be booted from any Mac, apps, files and settings intact.
Apple is also in a much different position than it was when it introduced FireWire. Its share of the PC market has never been stronger, and it continues to experience growth in that sector. It also has a huge chunk of the rapidly expanding mobile industry, thanks to the iPhone, iPod and iPad. While Thunderbolt tech hasn’t yet made an appearance on the mobile side of Apple’s business, I think it’s only a matter of time before it does. And then it doesn’t matter who else embraces it.