You are here

Intel’s Thunderbolt: Will It Shock The Computing Market?

Intel has released the Thunderbolt technology (Feb. 24, 2011) with Apple as the first OEM to implement it.  Originally code named Light Peak, this latest technology is designed for faster media transfer and simplified connections between devices.

Thunderbolt combines both optical and electrical technology.  It consists of controllers, one at each end (PC and peripheral device), a common connector and a Thunderbolt cable.  Devices can be daisy chained connected by electrical or optical cables.

The first product to hit the market with Thunderbolt is Apple’s new line of MacBook Pro notebook PCs.  It should be made very clear that Thunderbolt is not exclusive to Apple.  Thunderbolt is a new PC technology developed by Intel.  Going forward Thunderbolt is expected to be deployed by other OEMs.

According to an Intel spokesperson, the current version of Thunderbolt connector technology will be licensed broadly to the industry.  This will enable products using Intel’s Thunderbolt controllers.  At first Intel is focused on enabling targeted products.  However, deployment will broaden as the technology ramps.

Thunderbolt combines high-speed data and HD video connections together onto a single cable.  There are two communication methods or protocols – PCI Express for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays.  The transfer rate for media files is 10Gbps.

Semico Spin

Thunderbolt holds great potential for simplifying connections for many PC users.  The initial target application is for HD audio video.  This is what will grab the attention of many PC users.  Social media is driving the amount of photos and videos that are created and uploaded to web sites.  However, the potential for Thunderbolt goes further.  The high transfer rate Thunderbolt offers makes it very attractive for backing up huge files either with external mass storage for individual users or in data centers.  Cloud computing is small but growing quickly.  The amount of data we are creating and moving around is growing exponentially.

Intel has been simplifying connections and cables since USB was introduced in 1996.  This enables the PC market to make slimmer notebooks and other mobile devices.  It has also made life easier for PC users by reducing the number and type of cables one needs.

How long will it take for Thunderbolt to become mainstream?  As of this writing Intel has not stated any pricing for the controller.  One assumes the first shipments are relatively expensive given the first product that features Thunderbolt.  One can assume that over time, the technology will come down in price with increasing volume.

Intel introduced USB in 1996.  This technology was widely licensed and an industry organization has developed.  If Intel goes down the same path with Thunderbolt, the technology has a very good chance at being widely adopted.

Will Thunderbolt go the way of FireWire (IEEE1394)?  FireWire was introduced about the same time as USB.  It was developed by Apple.  The first implementation of FireWire had a speed up to 400Mbps compared to USB 1.0 with 1.5Mbps.  Since that time USB 2.0 has reached 480Mbps.  The full IEEE 1394b specification supports data rates up to 3200 Mbit/s over beta-mode or optical connections up to 100 meters in length.  A future version of FireWire, P1394d, is expected to reach 6.4Gps.  FireWire has not had the widespread adoption of USB due to the higher price and few peripherals that could justify the price.

USB 3.0 was just introduced in January 2011.  This is rated at 5Gbps.  Thus, it already surpasses FireWire and is not that much slower than the future P1394d.  Thunderbolt is starting at 10Gbps.  Intel is more likely to be successful to widely license and proliferate Thunderbolt than Apple could with FireWire fifteen years ago since it is a supplier to the ecosystem.  During this time frame the data transfer rates have increased dramatically.  Compared to 1995 the demand for high resolution monitors, HD and large external mass storage is much higher.  Another product announcement from Intel (Feb. 28, 2011) is the introduction of the Intel SSD 510 with a 6Gbps SATA interface.  A user can justify the cost of Thunderbolt.

Will USB disappear?  Semico does not believe this will happen anytime soon.  It takes time for the PC industry to obsolete legacy features.  One recent example is the industry wide agreement to phase out VGA by 2015 in favor of DisplayPort and HDMI.  Not all peripherals will need Thunderbolt, such as a mouse or a keyboard.  But the amount of data we create, store and transfer keeps growing.  One can buy Terabyte size HDD at Costco for under $100.  How long do you want to take backing up data?

Semico believes it will take time for Thunderbolt to reach widespread adoption.  Semico also assumes that the technology will increase in speed and come down in price.  By increasing the capabilities of the connections, Intel is providing more to developers for further innovation.