A Word on Thunderbolt

30 June, 2011

If you follow any news about new tech at all, especially news coming out of Cupertino, you probably already know about the existence of a new port called Thunderbolt, the be-all and end-all for ports. Except that, right now, it’s not. I’m not going into detailed technical specifications (go to Wikipedia if you’re interested), but in a nutshell, it makes a very fast port inside the computer, normally used for video cards and things of that sort, combines with with a new display port standard (called DisplayPort, how original…), serializes it, and makes it available to external devices. Since most of the technology involved already exists, it’s easier to implement than a new protocol, say, FireWire, for example (also known as IEEE 1394 by non-Apple users). While FireWire was intended to replace existing technologies, Thunderbolt uses existing ones to its advantage.

History is repeating, itself, in the form of Thunderbolt. See, in the mid 90’s, FireWire was introduced by Apple. It provides a high amount of power through the port. It can be daisy-chained. Its main uses were fast external hard drives and video capture. Sony was one of the first to adopt the protocol into its own proprietary format (as Sony does), called it i.LINK, and then PCs started adopting it. However, due to its higher cost (as compared to USB), it was pretty much limited in its mass-market appeal, never really leaving the realm of pro and semi-pro uses. A lot of computers have FireWire. Not a whole lot of people are using it, nor really know what the port is for.

Thunderbolt is, unfortunately, going down the same path FireWire is. Yes, it’s a different technology. Yes, it’s super-crazy fast. And yes, it’s expensive. There’s only one place where you can get Thunderbolt cables right now, and it’s $50. The port provides up to 10 watts of power. It can be daisy-chained. Its main uses, currently, are external hard drives, video captures, and (because it uses the DisplayPort… port) video output. Sony is the first manufacturer other than Apple to announce utilizing Thunderbolt, and (rumored) will have a proprietary port for it (admittedly, though, it’s possibly similar to USB, which might make future users know even less about it if it’s adopted like that). And, due to the high cost of “Thunderbolt-ready” devices, I don’t see mass-market appeal, and I don’t see it overtaking USB either. But, unlike last time, Apple does have a ball in its court: popularity. The cult following is much more powerful now than it was 15 years ago.

Only the future will tell how widespread Thunderbolt will get. I supported FireWire, and I support Thunderbolt, but, like many consumers, USB is just cheaper and easier to get devices for than either of these newcomers. Drop the price of Thunderbolt cables to something reasonable (like, say, $5 vs $50), and maybe we’ll talk.