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Thunderbolt: Apple’s Port to End All Ports?

As Apple prepares to refresh its MacBook Pro (s aapl) 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 (s intc) 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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15 Responses to “Thunderbolt: Apple’s Port to End All Ports?”

  1. Brett – as far as I know, ‘Thunderbolt” is just Intel’s official market branding for the standard. “LightPeak” was an internal development name. So, the standard isn’t Apple-only. It’s owned by Intel, and licensed to partners like Apple. Apple is the first. I have heard that Sony is also signed on.

    Maybe people will feel gouged – after all we already have a pile of cables of various kinds. But if the end result is a universal connector standard that can handle all our data transfer needs – printers, monitors, external drives and storage devices, peripherals – that seems worth doing, and even paying a bit extra for, IMO.

  2. Carl Bacon

    We’ve all been victimized by this “connector soup” compatibility/non-compatibility ego trip disguised as personal preference. We all have a muriad of connectors and cables from times gone bye; even if it was just 2 years ago. We hang onto many of these for the same reason: “Just In Case.” Hopefully someone will impose a standard on this industry; and at that time we will all be the winners.

  3. Curious item from your article,

    “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.”

    I would say its apples bet that wireless interfaces will not be sufficient for a long time.

  4. Darrell states “Eventually…we may do away with [hardware ports] altogether.” The only wireless technology I remember that could even approach 10 Gbps was Ultra Wideband, and it died before it ever went anywhere. Wireless has serious spectrum limitations that wired connections (and that includes optical cable) don’t have.

  5. Thorin Messer

    @Brett, Light Peak is an Intel tech, so it’ll have all the weight of Intel behind it. Hopefully that is more help than hindrance.

    I’m enthusiastic about it as tech because I’m tired of the soup of I/O ports. So I want it to win and the only way I know how to help it win is to buy it and ask companies to put it on their computers.

    That said, I can totally dig how you’d be leery of it until you see whether it’s VHS or Betamax.

  6. reinharden

    I’ve not yet seen speculation as to whether or not this port would also provide power. But surely a port with a lightning bolt icon would provide power?

    ’cause I can envision the iPad 2 using this port for high speed syncing, for power, and maybe, just maybe, for being used as an extra display when docked to a laptop.


  7. Light Peak supports daisy chaining like Firewire, so you wouldn’t need a bunch of ports, just one. That is another one of its big advantages.
    Rumor has it that Sony is already signed up to support it, and it’s not an Apple standard, though they were involved with Intel in its creation.

  8. I still don’t feel comfortable adopting an Apple only standard. Unless it is widely adopted outside of Apple products it will get frustrating. If they do go the whole light peak way will the ipad come with a usb sync cable or a light peak cable? Why do I get the feeling this technology is just going to gouge people for special peripherals and connectors? =(


      That’s funny in the 80’s people didn’t seem to have a problem with the Seagate Computer System Interface that Apple pushed onto their entire product line back then. BTW neither are an Apple only standard they were just the first to push it.