Intel Thunderbolt is on the road to nowhere

Posted by Nick Farrell

Intel has been showing off its next-generation Thunderbolt technology which boasts double the speed and backward compatibility of the earlier versions. The technology does look good on paper and the fact that it is going under the bonnet of Apple machines means that it is guaranteed a lot of excited free publicity from the Apple frenzied press.

However, it has not been announced when, or if it is ever going to be released.  The way things are going, it is unlikely to see the light of day at all. To recap, the new Thunderbolt supports up to 20Gbps bidirectionally and the cables can now support both transferring a 4K video and putting it on screen at the same time. This is all good stuff, but Thunderbolt is technology that is rarely seen outside Apple, where it is prohibitively expensive and being outclassed by cheap and cheerful USB technology.

Intel claims that it will build the newer version of Thunderbolt, codenamed Falcon Ridge, into its next major generation of chipsets, and it will make its way into products at the "end of this year," with a "ramp in 2014". But Thunderbolt has been largely a missed opportunity by Intel. By teaming up with Apple on the project it more or less guaranteed it would be headed for obscurity. Even if Intel does ramp up production, chances are that it will only be seen on Apple gear. Intel should have known better.

This is exactly what happened with Apple’s other interconnect technology Firewire. Firewire is a serial bus interface standard for high-speed communications and isochronous real-time data transfer which was developed by Apple to much acclaim.  It first appeared in 1999 and most Apple computers have FireWire ports. But it has not seen much take-up besides that and part of the problem is that although Jobs’ Mob is big when it comes to mobile, this sort of technology is part of Apple’s fairly flaccid PC business. Apple also made the set up too expensive, especially in comparison to USB. All this has flowed into the lack-lustre way that Thunderbolt has failed to take off. Apple’s lack of enthusiasm to sell its technology also left Intel in the lurch.

So far only Acer has signed up to use the technology. Given the lack of take up in the industry, and the fact that no one other than Apple seems to want it, we do not believe that we will see much of it at all. By 2014 the new versions of USB 3 will wipe the floor with Thunderbolt.  

While the USB technology will not be faster, it will be cheaper and will be backed by the rest of the industry. Had Intel thought about how Apple handled Firewire, it would have wondered if it was better to find another partner to develop Thunderbolt.