Why Thunderbolt will always be a niche technology -- until it dies

Why Thunderbolt will always be a niche technology -- until it dies

Summary: While on paper Intel's Thunderbolt technology is far superior to USB 2.0, the announcement that an updated USB 3.0 specification is on the horizon guarantees that it will never go mainstream.

TOPICS: Intel, Apple, Hardware

On Tuesday, Ars Technica penned a piece on Intel's Thunderbolt technology and how 2013 could be the year it takes off. Despite offering a huge performance upside compared to the now aging USB 2.0, in addition to earning Apple's seal of approval by being given room on Mac hardware, the technology continues to languish in comparative obscurity.


Could this be the year of Thunderbolt. Unfortunately, no.

Yes, it's true that the relatively high prices for both peripherals and cables have dampened enthusiasm, but the real problem with Thunderbolt is far more subtle than that.

Thunderbolt combines PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort (DP) into one cable, and also features DC power, and offers a bi-directional transfer rate of 10 Gbit/s for up to seven devices per port. This allows the port to drive both large LCD displays while at the same time offering enough bandwidth for high-performance storage devices. Compare this to the lowly UBS 2.0's maximum signaling rate of 480 Mbit/s and you can see just how much better it is.

This brings us to the first problem with Thunderbolt -- it's too good. 10 Gbit/s far exceeds what most people need. For the vast majority of users USB 2.0 is fast enough for most applications, thrusting it into the premium category. While the idea of hooking up displays and high-speed storage devices to a single port might seem compelling, the average user doesn't haves need for this transfer capacity. The types of storage devices that make use of Thunderbolt are aimed squarely at media professionals wanting fast access to large volumes of video.

Until these devices drop in price to a point where they are accessible and affordable to a mainstream market, there's no way that Thunderbolt will go mainstream.

But there's another problem facing Thunderbolt, and this one means that Thunderbolt will never gain traction -- and it's the new USB 3.0 specification that's in the pipeline. The new USB 3.0 standard will offer much greater speed that of the existing USB 3.0 standard, bringing the standard in line with Thunderbolt. This updated standard offers one key advantage compared to Thunderbolt, and that is that it will be 100 percent compatible with existing USB hardware.

According to the USB Implementers Forum, the updated specification should be ready by mid-2013, and hardware based on the new specification will be available within about a year.

If price put a damper on Thunderbolt, an updated USB 3.0 standard that brings all the performance benefits of Thunderbolt, along with the added value of being compatible with current USB hardware, is a nail in the coffin of Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is destined to go the same way as Apple's FireWire did -- death from being too much, too soon, and for appealing to a niche market.

Topics: Intel, Apple, Hardware

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  • Apple just can't win

    First their iPhone 5 sales plummet and now their beloved Thunderbolt is being usurped by a tech that's already an industry standard.
    • Apple's interfaces were always niche

      In the 1990s, Apple promoted the SCSI interface.

      Then we had Firewire, which was destined to become mainstream, until Intel came along and ruined the party.

      Thunderbolt is supposed to make the desktop computer obsolete, by allowing modular external add-ons. It will probably still fill that niche as a professional product, even if it doesn't go mainstream.

      Apple's most hair-brained interface is the Lightning connector on new iPhones and iPads. It was made out of arrogance, to take over the world, but it will fail.
      • Proprietary vs Open

        The major reason most of those technologies was niche is that they were Proprietary Standards vs Open Standards with FRAND licensing. I know that FireWire and Thunderbolt falls into the Proprietary Standards category. USB and SATA fall into Open standards, I think.
        • FireWire = IEEE 1394

          FireWire was invented by Apple but is astandard interface. The problem was simply device support. Apart from video cameras, it didn't have much application outside Apple.

          One trick USB got right was backward compatibility. A USB 3.0 port could support all USB devices. I do not believe FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 were as compatible.

          Apple love locking their customers in. They deliberately use interfaces that are incompatible with other devices until the penny drops that they will be left out in the cold if they don't conform. This led them to abandonning FireWire in favour of USB. It will happen again with Thunderbolt.
          • Who says Apple doesn't support USB?

            My Mac has USB 3.0 ports.
          • Re: Who says Apple doesn't support USB?

            In fact, it was the original Apple Imac that kick-started industry adoption of USB. Prior to that it had been languishing in a chicken-and-egg dilemma, with device makers reluctant to produce devices without PC support, and PC makers reluctant to include the ports without many devices to plug into them. Until Apple introduced an innovative new PC that sold like hot cakes, but the only realistic way to attach devices to it was via USB.

            Sadly, that was probably the last thing Apple did that was genuinely good for the whole industry. Everything after that was purely for its own benefit.
        • You don't know much

          Thunderbolt is Intel's standard and is royalty free to use. They use Apple's Displayport design for the port which is also free to use
        • Huh?

          Thunderbolt is Intel, USB is Intel. Apple went to Intel to create what ultimately is Thunderbolt. The reason why Apple has integrated it is because it was originated by Apple and it's what THEY wanted. Since Intel was better suited to develop it, that's why they went with Intel. Why the Wintel crowd hasn't embraced it? The Wintel crowd has enough problems competing with one another on a price competition since most PC mfgs have to compete on price rather than technology. Some have Thunderbolt as an option, but I've heard the Wintel drivers aren't that good. Thunderbolt is here to stay and there are more products coming out. Now, with the sneak peak at the MacPro, and Intel's recent announcement of Thunderbolt 2, then we are going to see another 2x improvement. I'm sure the high end crowd will love Thunderbolt 2 for video, large data transfers with RAID systems, etc. I think Thunderbolt was an is a great idea. It's what Firewire could have been. It's bidirectional, ability to daisy chain and it's just a paradigm shift that some will embrace. Belkin has a great docking station for laptops, there are more RAID arrays out, several companies have external PCI expansion chassis, and I think certain industries audio/video production will see more Thunderbolt related products coming out. It just takes a little time for the install base to gets to a certain point, and then it's R&D for new product ideas.
      • iPhone 5 sales never "plummeted", if you leave out nonsensical rumours

        So what you were talking about again?

        As to TB, it still universal, all-in-one way (unlike USB 3, even updated), and it can power devices (unlike USB 3, even updated), and it has speeds horizon up to 100 Gbps (unlike USB 3, even updated) since the very beginning of design.

        But yes, for many TB is going to be niche.
        • Did you read the article?

          "all-in-one way" -> almost no one really needs that

          "it can power devices" -> actually USB 3 *can* power devices. That you can't recharge your iDevice by connecting it to a USB 3 port is Apple's fault because pretty much all other devices can, also, almost no one needs more than what USB 3 provides.

          "has speeds horizon up to 100 Gbps" -> again, almost no one needs this. You know there's this thing called the cloud where more and more people keep their stuff, so they don't need to transfer it between devices.
          • "almost no one needs more than what USB 3 provides."

            I want to attach a big screen to my laptop when I am at my desk.

            I'd love it if that on cable could then daisy chain to a second screen and a large capacity disk array and all my USB peripherals with ONE cable coming from my laptop.

            That is what Thunderbolt gives me today. Might USB 3.5 deliver this capability tomorrow? Perhaps -I'll have to check the proposed spec, but right now I have to connect my non-Thunderbolt laptop to power, HDMI/DisplayPort (+ audio out for the latter) USB HDD enclosure, Ethernet and possibly my USB printer/scanner.

            That sucks.
          • Check out the

            Belkin docking station. It's meant for MacBook users. It's a very nice product.
      • Lightning

        It was time for a change since the 30-pin port was out of date. Micro-USB hasn't settled on a design for USB 3.0 support (or for anything forward looking), so I don't blame Apple for going it alone with another proprietary port so that they are ready for the future. If the 30-pin port is any guide we'll be using Lightning in 2021 and it will support USB 4.0 or whatever we are on at that time.
      • Re: In the 1990s, Apple promoted the SCSI interface.

        That was the 1980s, and the Microsoft-compatible world had nothing like it. It was a fantastically useful interface for its time. For example, we could access a whole world of third-party devices like hard drives, CD-ROM drives, more exotic magneto-opticals and so on, while those stuck with DOS/Windows had to struggle with ongoing driver incompatibilities.

        That was the time when it was worthwhile being an Apple fan. But not any more...
      • Unfortunately for you Thunderbolt is Intel's baby

        Not Apple's.
    • Can't resist. Sorry in advance. One question

      How's that Java thing going for you, T1Oracle?
  • USB 3.0 vs Thunderbolt

    Last year, Intel announced that Thunderbolt will be upgraded to PCI-Express 3.0 speeds, that is, the speed will double.

    Today's Thunderbolt has 4 data lanes, each of 10Gbit. That makes it an 20 Gbps full-dulex connection. With PCI-Express 3.0 that would become 40 Gbps full-duplex. So, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt are not comparable even at raw speeds.

    Then, Thunderbolt can run to 50 meters optical. It is an extension of the PCI-Express bus, outside of the computer's box and you can daisy-chain 6 such boxes!

    Of course, the cheap "anything goes" market will go for USB and be happy.
    • Usage

      So what is your usage case for all that speed?
      Why would the "anything goes" market even care?
      Bragging rights?
      Don't get me wrong, someone somewhere can always find a use but trying to justify mainstream.
      • Future proof

        Look, I believe USB 3 is pretty quick, but having seen Intel demonstrations of USB 3 -vs- Thunderbolt live at the last IDC, I HOPE it does take off. Really. I hope it becomes a standard port on out PCs, and especially ultrabooks, and I hope cable hit a more reasonable $10-$20 price mark for cables at least.

        I won't go in to the demo I saw too much, but in a very quick nutshell, not only was thunderbolt a lot faster than USB 3 transferring data to/from an SSD, it was a completely sustained rate whereas USB 3 was jumping all over the place.

        If the price comes down to reasonable - WHY NOT? Thunderbolt is so fast, I could have my tiny little Ultrabook dock in when I get to my office to a dedicated graphics card, USB 3 hub, LCD, external BluRay drive, speakers, mouse, keyboard all through one cable and all operating at full speed.

        The current multitude of docks I've tested (USB3) are quite slow when converting to Gigabit ethernet due to the USB 3 overhead (about 40Mbps -vs- 100Mbps on standard desktop), let alone transferring from SSDs.

        Files are getting bigger, more data WILL be becoming normal than today. Why not be ready, instead of allowing our resistance to change allow USB become our next bottleneck?

        And if manufacturers offer both port on devices (be it PCs, portable or storage devices), who's complaining? Plug in what you like. I'm sure in the majority of cases initially that will be USB 3 devices, but as prices drop and requirements rise, I bet quite a few of those will become Thunderbolt.

        I'm sick of so called tech journos knocking down tech that will improve our future lives - they seem to always look at the here and now.
        • What's the point?

          PCs (and I am using the term generically) have a life expectancy of a only a few years. By the time this additional performance is needed, USB 4 will be good enough. To put it another way, you probably wont have the equipment you are future proofing by the time that future arrives.