I’m a huge fan of Thunderbolt. A single wire carrying both DisplayPort and high-speed PCIe data is an incredibly elegant approach to minimising cable clutter even if you don’t need the blistering speed, especially when you can use an Apple Thunderbolt Display as a hub for your USB devices.
I also admire clever tech. The reason you can daisy-chain up to six separate devices is because Thunderbolt automatically multiplexes and de-multiplexes the signals as needed. Thunderbolt 2 takes this approach one step further, combining two 10Gbit/s channels into a single 20Gbit/s connection, with the the Thunderbolt controller again doing all the work. It’s impressive stuff.
A fast, clever technology developed by Intel and enthusiastically marketed by Apple ought to stand a fighting chance at mass-market adoption. Sadly, there’s so far not much sign of this happening. It’s all looking rather reminiscent of Firewire …
Firewire was far superior to USB. While USB 2 claimed peak speeds of 480Mbps, it rarely delivered them. Firewire 400’s delivery of 400Mbps was consistent, making it significantly faster in real-life use. And Firewire 800 left USB for dead.
But we all know that technological superiority is no guarantee of commercial success. The mass-market went with USB. Partly because consumers buy numbers without necessarily knowing what they mean, but mostly because it was cheaper.
Firewire didn’t die. It’s still in use in many high-end setups, and you can still buy Firewire drives today. But it definitely became a niche product, with even Apple eventually dropping the port from its MacBooks.
Thunderbolt currently looks to be heading the same way. That wasn’t the plan. Intel intended it to be the new USB. Optical thunderbolt was supposed to take over from copper, and there was supposed to be a Thunderbolt port in every PC. Neither has happened.
The reason is USB 3. It’s not as good. It’s not as fast. But it’s cheap and it’s familiar. You can virtually count on one hand the number of Windows PCs out there with a Thunderbolt port. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that without Apple, Thunderbolt would already be dead.
The new Superspeed USB protocol matching the 10Gbps throughput of standard Thunderbolt adds to the pressure, and Thunderbolt 2 – like Firewire 800 before it – is unlikely to be enough to sway the market.
But there are two glimmers of hope. The first is the new Mac Pro. That has not just one Thunderbolt 2 port, but six. Given that each one can drive six Thunderbolt devices, Apple clearly believes that at least one segment of the market is going to share its enthusiasm for the interface.
So far, that segment looks to be video editors. They want a machine that is lightning-fast, that will drive multiple 4k displays and which provides high-speed access to lots of external drives. The new Mac Pro seems to be that machine, and Thunderbolt 2 one of the key elements of its appeal, supporting both the displays and the drives.
Of course, one expensive, niche machine is never going to turn Thunderbolt into a mainstream protocol, or create a flood of mass-market peripherals. But I do think it’s enough to ensure that it will hang in there, the way Firewire did – and that may buy Thunderbolt the time it needs.
Time, because that second Thunderbolt trick – driving multiple 4K displays – is going to grow in appeal. Sure, today, when they cost $5k a pop, that’s as niche as it gets. But in a couple of years’ time, when 4K is the new HD, all those ordinary business professionals and home enthusiasts with twin-monitor setups are going to have twin 4K monitors, and that’s when Thunderbolt is going to come into its own.
It’s still not a done deal: updated versions of both DisplayPort and HDMI will do the same, and those, like USB, are built on familiar standards. The fact that Thunderbolt is one cable that does all of it – displays and drives and more – doesn’t mean it will emerge victorious.
What’s my view? I’m confident Thunderbolt will still be around in five years’ time. I’m just not 100 percent convinced the port will still be there in MacBooks by then. I’m hoping I’m wrong.