Tech Pundits Claim Little Future For Intel's Thunderbolt Technology

On paper, Intel's Thunderbolt looks like an easy winner over the relatively new USB 3 standard. The USB extension offers 10x the bandwidth of USB 2 and supports full duplex operation, but is limited to 'just' 5Gbps. Thunderbolt—even the cut-back, copper-wire version that's standard on new Macbook Pros—offers 10Gbps of bi-directional bandwidth. Intel's new standard is up to 4x faster than USB 3, but a new article at Extremetech argues that speed is far from everything.

Thunderbolt, the article argues, is dangerously close to slipping into obscurity. As of this writing, Apple is the only company that's embraced the standard. HP, in contrast, announced last March that it would stick with USB 3 instead. The company's worldwide marketing rep, Xavier Lauwaert, had this to say: "We did look at Thunderbolt]. We're still looking into it. Haven't found a value proposition yet. On the PC side, everybody seems to be content with the expansion of USB 3.0. Do we need to go into more fancy solutions? Not convinced yet."

Intel and Apple jointly developed Thunderbolt, which may actually be part of the problem. When Apple debuted its then-new FireWire interface with the launch of the Power Macintosh G3 (Blue and White) in 1999, it showed the world a peripheral standard that made USB 1.1 (released in 1998) into a joke. USB was notorious for chewing processor cycles and could only power the most minimal of devices. Devices couldn't be daisy-chained and hubs, while allowing for more ports, split the performance of a single USB controller across however many devices were connected to the system. FireWire 400 (AKA 1394a) didn't just flatten USB 1.1; it proved superior to USB 2.0 in terms of CPU load and transfer speeds.

Despite its absolute superiority, FireWire remained confined to niche status. There are multiple reasons why—FireWire equipment was more expensive, Apple charged what was considered a substantial royalty per part, Macs in general held much less of the market, and the Windows-side controllers and drivers ran the gamut from lousy to terrible. 1394a lives on as a shadow peripheral option most motherboard manufacturers offer via internal connector if nothing else, but Apple's FireWire 800 follow-up never made an appearance as a motherboard option, even at the highest end of the spectrum.

Thunderbolt, like FireWire, has a number of advantages over USB 3.0. It's also true that being a Mac-only standard conveys a much bigger advantage now than it did in 2000; Apple's perceived status as one of the top (if not the top) manufacturers adds a mystique to the Thunderbolt interface and implies that if Apple is using it, it must be something super-awesome-special. On the other hand, there are 39 USB 3.0 cards on sale at NewEgg, starting at $24.99. There are no Thunderbolt adapters or peripherals selling whatsoever.

Cost is another contributing factor. We don't know how much it costs to build Thunderbolt compatibility into current hardware, but Matrox is telling customers (in the fine print, natch) that anyone who purchases a product in the MX02 family will be able to purchase a Thunderbolt adaptor for $299. Thunderbolt-compatible MX02 devices, on the other hand, will be available in July 2011, starting at $649. The current low-end MX02 Mini is $449. This implies that T-bolt is carrying a $200 price premium; significantly less than the $299 adaptor fee, but awful darn expensive for a supposedly mass-market peripheral interconnect.

The quick death of FireWire 800 and FireWire 400's long goodbye is proof that an interconnect can offer numerous real-world, visible, desirable advantages over its mainstream counterpart without ever gaining mass market traction. The speed and ubiquitiousness of USB 3.0 threatens to sideline Thunderbolt altogether for reasons that have nothing to do with the latter's technical superiority.