Thunderbolt: Apple’s Port to End All Ports?

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As Apple prepares to refresh its MacBook Pro line of notebook computers, it’s beginning to look like a pretty safe bet that it will introduce a new I/O port called “Thunderbolt” in combination with the new devices, based on Intel’s Light Peak specification. It makes a lot of sense, since Apple worked with Intel in developing Light Peak. But why do devices need this port, and what might Apple have planned for it in the future?

First, let’s look a little into Light Peak, how it works and what it can do. Light Peak is an optical cable interface designed by Intel with a bandwidth of 10 Gbps currently, with the potential to ultimately scale to rates of over 100 Gbps over the course of its life. The main benefit of Light Peak is that it provides enough bandwidth to both replace data connectors such as SCSI, USB, SATA and FireWire, while at the same time handling the duties of higher performance ports like eSATA and DisplayPort (or Mini DisplayPort, in the case of Apple computers).

Put simply, Light Peak is designed to cover all the bases. In theory, that means it could allow Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook Pros to connect to an Apple Cinema Display, for instance, with just one cable, providing both A/V and multiple data stream connections between the two devices simultaneously. It’s the ultimate single-cord solution.

Getting people to use new port standards isn’t easy, however. USB is firmly entrenched, and even its successor, USB 3.0, hasn’t made much headway yet. But I think Apple has very ambitious long-term plans for Thunderbolt, because in theory at least, the Light Peak-based standard could eliminate the need for port differentiation altogether. Since Light Peak’s capacity ceiling is still a long way off, and because of its versatility, it’s the perfect way for Apple to begin the gradual transition to an utterly wireless future, since in theory, it should be able to satisfy even power user demands for years to come.

Imagine a future where every port running down the side of your MacBook is the same, and all of your devices can connect to any one of them in order to perform their intended function, including data drives, external displays and even your power adapter. It seems utopian, but Light Peak offers the potential to make that future a reality, and with Apple’s ever-growing market share (and influence), it’s in a better position than ever to help usher that future in.

Apple could throw even more weight behind Light Peak or Thunderbolt adoption by using its considerable leverage as a mobile device maker. Rumors suggest it may already be doing just that, if it’s indeed building a Thunderbolt port into the upcoming iPad 2. The iPad has an entire cottage industry dedicated specifically to making peripherals for just one device, so it wouldn’t be terribly hard to get some of them onboard with creating Thunderbolt-capable accessories. And if said accessories are cross-compatible between iOS (iPhone, too, down the road?) and OS X devices, it shouldn’t take long before we see a healthy cross-section of peripheral manufacturers adopting the standard.

In the bigger picture, with advances in NFC and other wireless communication standards like Wi-Fi Direct, hardware ports and connections are slowly becoming less and less important. Eventually, if technological development continues at its current pace, we may do away with them altogether. But before that happens, I think we could see Apple make a serious move toward a hardware I/O standard that allow it to further simplify its minimalist design principles. After all, this is the company that once famously said of the iPad, “you already know how to use it.” Why not embrace a port that works the same way?

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