Apple (s aapl) proved today that it is firmly behind Thunderbolt as a standard for the future of Mac computing. It put not one, but two of the new high-speed I/O ports on the new 27-inch iMac, as if to firmly reinforce the point. Some are hailing it as the FireWire replacement, but here are five reasons why Thunderbolt is actually a much bigger deal than that.
1. It Will Change How We Think About External Storage. Do you have any external drives attached to your Mac? No matter how much space you have internally on your machine, you’ll probably always find yourself reaching a point where you need more. And no matter whether you have USB or FireWire drives, transferring and accessing these files will lead to delays, no matter how slight, which make using them for regularly-accessed content a bit of a pain. Thunderbolt will make external storage as fast as internal storage, so that you can expand your machine’s potential storage capacity almost infinitely without making any performance sacrifices. It may take some time for external Thunderbolt devices to become affordable to the average consumer, but it will happen, and it will help make storage space constraints a vague memory.
2. It Will Allow for Everything HD All the Time. Apple’s mobile devices will only get better at high-quality HD video capture, and its strong ties to professional A/V hardware and software companies like Canon(s caj), Nikon (s ninoy) and Adobe (s adbe) aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. The data demands of photo and video devices will only increase as consumers expect more from them, and moving files between devices (and manipulating that data once it’s there) will require better tools with more muscle. Thunderbolt will make high-quality video transfer and editing quick and painless, and will even help editing after the fact of media by working as a scratch disk or a connection tech for distributed rendering.
3. It Will Extend Beyond Macs. Apple is a self-described mobile device company. Any new technology initiatives it undertakes will definitely also have mobile considerations, and Thunderbolt is no exception. Apple has a patent on the books that will allow its proprietary 30-pin dock connector (the one used for iOS device) to work with both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. Thunderbolt on mobile devices has amazing potential for improved connectivity, including drastically faster sync, backup and update times; improved handling of video out duties; high-speed camera-to-device transfer; and even multi-display connection possibilities for future, more powerful iPhones and iPads.
4. It Will End Your Connectivity Limitations. The new 27-inch iMacs have two Thunderbolt ports that provide connections for up to two additional monitors, which is double the amount previous iMacs have supported. But it doesn’t end there. Thunderbolt can operate as a true, powerful expansion bus, which should allow it to support network connectivity, USB 2 and 3 and FireWire, and even external video cards thanks to adapters. Basically, anything that can be used with a PCIe expansion slot could work as a Thunderbolt device. No matter what you want to be able to plug into your Mac, you’ll be able to do it, so long as there is enough interest from third-party adapter and device manufacturers. And once Thunderbolt is on all new shipping Macs, it’ll be too attractive a potential audience to pass up.
5. It Will Only Get Better With Time. Intel (s intc) is said to be already hard at work on the next generation of Thunderbolt technology, slated for a 2015 release. That tech will allow for five times faster transfer speeds, of up to 50 Gbps. But even before that, Thunderbolt could get much faster, since its 10 Gbps speeds is still considerably below its maximum theoretical speed due to the use of copper wires in Thunderbolt cable construction. Fibre optic cables could push the limits much further, though optical Thunderbolt cables won’t supply power initially, but Intel is working on getting around that limitation.
Thunderbolt’s impact isn’t what most end users and buyers will think about when shopping for new Macs, but it is the improvement those interested in the future of Apple and computing in general should be most keen to watch, for the reasons mentioned above. The far future might be totally wireless, but in the meantime, Thunderbolt will have its day.