Our concern that widespread adoption of USB 3 might leave Thunderbolt out in the cold now looks even more likely as the USB 3.1 – aka Superspeed USB – specification has been announced. This allows USB transfers of up to 10Gbps, the same speed as the original Thunderbolt standard.
Thunderbolt is technically superior to USB 3 – combining PCIe, DisplayPort and power signals into a single cable – and the recently announced Thunderbolt 2 version (which will debut in the new Mac Pro) doubles throughput to a blistering 20Gbps. And Thunderbolt can deliver that bandwidth to more than one device at a time. But technical superiority alone is no guarantee of success, as the history of Betamax or Firewire demonstrates …
The simple fact is that Thunderbolt is expensive, and Thunderbolt 2 even more so. USB 3 may be doing to Thunderbolt what USB 2 did to Firewire: getting close enough in performance to have the cost argument win the day for most manufacturers.
Apple may stick with the better technology for now, but not even a company as powerful as Apple can hold out forever in the face of dwindling support for a standard. Firewire finally disappeared from MacBooks back in 2008, when Apple had to face the fact that all the kit people wanted to attach to their Macs had adopted USB as the standard. Much as it saddens me to say it, I can’t help feeling it’s only a matter of time before Thunderbolt suffers the same fate.