Does Intel’s Light Peak Have a Place in Apple’s Future?

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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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