In late February, Apple released new models of its Macbook Pro lines with an interesting onboard technology, developed not by Apple, but by Intel. In most respects the new Macbook Pros are just another slight tweak in processor technology, but they also feature a brand new port, dubbed “Thunderbolt”. It’s a technology that Intel initially used to call “Lightpeak”, but neither name actually covers what it is that Thunderbolt does, which is, in essence, data transfer and video display at very high speeds and high definition respectively from the same port.
In its current configuration, Thunderbolt is good for up to 10Gbps both coming from and going to the port, but that’s based on a copper interconnect. Switch that up to an optical interconnect, and the technology is capable of a theoretical 100Gbps throughput. To put that in some perspective, the current USB 2.0 port that’s most likely on the machine you’re reading this is roughly twenty times slower at its absolute peak data rate. Thunderbolt devices can also daisy chain, so technically should be capable of stringing off each other, rather than requiring a whole new port for each device.
Thunderbolt sports some impressive figures, to be sure, but it’s not the only connection option open on new systems. USB continues to chug along with USB 3.0, which tops out at a technical limit of 5GBps. That’s clearly slower than Thunderbolt, but then it’s fully backwards compatible with any existing USB 2.0 or 1.0 devices. It also has the advantage that, while they’re a little thin on the ground, there are USB 3.0 devices out there that you can buy right now. Currently, the only Thunderbolt device you can buy would be a Macbook Pro, and then, unless you bought an adaptor, there’s nothing specifically Thunderbolt-wise you can plug into it.
Thunderbolt is technically superior, but that’s not always the way the market goes in terms of what becomes the dominant technology. For pretty much all of USB’s existence, it’s played second fiddle to Firewire in the speed stakes, and yet, largely outside of camcorders, Firewire’s had significantly less market penetration. Even when it was first installed in new products, the Firewire versions have lost out. The best example of this particular effect would be the iPod, which in its original configuration was a Firewire product. Ipods haven’t been firewire-based for a very long time now, because USB managed to come along from a slower speed position and become just about ubiquitous. The same thing could happen to Thunderbolt, despite its technical prowess.