When Intel unveiled Thunderbolt on Apple computers earlier this year, everyone was curious what the new 10Gbps transfer technology would mean for the industry as a whole. After Apple's announced yesterday that Thunderbolt will appear on Mac Minis and MacBook Airs, and drive its first official display, the answer would appear to be: nothing.
The dream of the do-everything interface has tantalized the tech industry for years; the Universal Serial Bus, aka USB, is proof of that. Ubiquitous as it may be today, there are limits to even its capabilities: The newest and most powerful version yet, USB 3.0, maxes out at 5Gbps, half the speed of Thunderbolt, and it's far lighter overall in terms of features. Thunderbolt, for example, can transmit PCI Express and DisplayPort data at the same time, and daisy-chain up to seven devices at once.
Thunderbolt is undoubtedly powerful, but right now it's too limited in scope for all its power to mean much. One of the best implementations of it we've seen so far is the Promise Pegasus R6, but at $2,000, that external hard drive array is priced well beyond most people's budgets. And as Apple's share of the PC market remains at under 10 percent (at least as of January 2011), and PC users have yet to obtain access to Thunderbolt, there should be a very real concern out there as to whether or not Apple can force it into a success.
What helped USB, and indeed what helps all standards, is broader acceptance—and that's something Thunderbolt has not yet found. To be fair, it was only officially announced in late February, and five months isn't all that long in the tech world. USB 3.0 has been a reality since early last year, and headers for it are only now regularly appearing on motherboards. It's entirely possible we may still see lots of new products using it before the end of the year. (Contrary to initial reports, Apple does not have exclusive use of the technology until next year.) But given how few announcements there have been about this—and how little buzz Thunderbolt seems to generate from everyone except Apple—one can't help but wonder whether it will ever ignite the popular interest at all.
Intel's continual foot dragging regarding USB 3.0, of course, has cast that in doubt in a lot of people's minds as well. But most computers outside the very lowest pricing tiers sport at least one USB 3.0 port, and many have two or more. Plus, with billions of supported hardware devices floating around out there (USB 3.0 is backward compatible; all you sacrifice is the additional speed), it already has an astonishing head start that will be a challenge for anything to surmount at this point. On the other hand, Mini DisplayPort, which served as the basis for the Thunderbolt interface, has never really caught fire as used in consumer video devices, which hampers Thunderbolt's popular adoption even more.
Unless more consumers can be convinced of Thunderbolt's benefits, it's going to have a hard time finding its footing in an industry already saturated with USB, eSATA, FireWire, HDMI, DisplayPort, and even DVI. The time is ripe for a single powerful standard, but as long as it remains sequestered in the expensive portions of the gated community of Apple, the majority of home computer users won't be clamoring for the chance to integrate it into their lives. Perhaps they'll still start, but they've been quiet about it so far—perhaps too quiet for Thunderbolt to ever strike like lightning.
Copyright © 2010 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.