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

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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