Intel, Apple Partners Foresee Thunderbolt Disruption Of USB I/O Standard


Digitimes on Tuesday reported that Intel is set to release Thunderbolt SDKs in Q3 and that Thunderbolt will “greatly affect” USB 3.0 adoption in the future. Citing industry sources, the report says Intel’s strategy is to minimize the risks of “placing all the eggs into one basket” by adopting one standard or the other.

In response to the rumor, Intel and Apple partners in the system builder channel for the most part expect Thunderbolt to be positioned as a supplementary, proprietary option that doesn’t threaten USB 3.0’s very existence. Partners nevertheless expect Thunderbolt to offer both Intel and Apple market advantages but for different reasons, as each company contributes its core competency to the final product.

Joshua Liberman, president of Net Sciences, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based system builder said he believes USB 3.0 will simply replace USB 2.0 and high-speed USB, with Thunderbolt eventually taking the higher-end of the market over time.

“First of all, USB 3.0 is here, available and working,” Liberman said. “Thunderbolt, although just now seeing some limited adoption, is really a future technology still looking for an installed base. I believe that USB 3.0 will continue, with Thunderbolt staking out a higher ground in the next year or two.”

Sponsored post

Tim Ulmen, principal at Midwest IT solutions group, a Wichita, Kan.-based system builder, said he expects USB 3.0 will be in the mainstream for the next two years or so and that motherboard manufacturers have only recently begun adopting the technology. Once they do Intel’s dual strategy will prove to be a sound business decision, according to Ulmen.

“I think with its backwards compatibility to USB 2.0 and its performance gains with relatively little cost difference, USB 3.0 should have some staying power,” Ulmen said. “I see Thunderbolt gaining the most traction in higher-end computing solutions in which Apple traditionally has a good foothold.”

On the other hand, David Doyle, vice president of Simply Computing, a Vancouver-based Apple partner, said he believes Apple’s Thunderbolt strategy is tied to the company’s calculation, which he agrees with, that USB, is on its way out as an industry standard. Doyle said Thunderbolt, re-branded as Light Peak, Intel’s original moniker for Thunderbolt, will likely switch to fiber-optic material and take on the market USB currently claims.

Next: Apple Partners On Thunderbolt“Currently it's running on copper wire as Thunderbolt, [but] once it goes optical I think we'll see the name Light Peak again,” Doyle said. “It's faster, and more dynamic than USB 3. Apple has already adopted it. They were the first at the USB craze. They know when to get off and move on. This is it.”

Not all Apple partners in the system builder channel have the same expectations for Thunderbolt. “I certainly don’t see Thunderbolt replacing USB 3, which has tremendous market momentum,” Michael Oh, President of Boston-based Apple reseller Tech Superpowers said. “I don’t’ really see all the manufacturers jumping on board with Thunderbolt.”

Oh said he believes Thunderbolt will target higher-end peripherals with higher performance RAID system, integrated video and capabilities that offer direct control or direct access. In so doing, it would follow in the footsteps of Firewire, the codename for the IEEE 1394 interface, a serial bus standard that Apple introduced in 1995.

“There is a precedent that Apple has already set with its Firewire interface,” Oh said. “Firewire shows that people do find relevance in interfaces beyond just USB. I think USB is great, adding speed and capability to the USB standard is a big step forward. But in terms higher-end peripherals,” Thunderbolt is the more appropriate product as it offers better performance.”

Oh said the Thunderbolt strategy makes sense, nevertheless, for both Intel and Apple – although for different reasons.

“Apple is selling notebooks at much higher margins and for a much higher price, so they can afford to spend an extra few dollars on a port relatively since it’s a relatively small expenditure compared to their profit,” Oh said. “From Intel’s perspective I think it’s an extremely good move. It positions them very well as the manufacturer. I think it’s very important when you have a single supplier for chipsets that that supplier has a range of capabilities. “

Kent Tibbils, vice president of marketing at Fremont, Calif.-based system builder ASI Corp said its likely that both Thunderbolt and AMD will appear in the market at the same time, but the latter will serve as more of a proprietary option, while USB’s appeal is its universality.

“Only time will tell whether this will eventually replace USB 3.0 but it won’t happen overnight because of the need to have a connection for legacy devices,” Tibbils said. “For Apple, the use of Thunderbolt is a great idea because it gives them control over their accessory devices. You can’t say Thunderbolt is proprietary but if you’re the only company implementing it at an early stage than it certainly has some proprietary traits.”

Next: Differences Between Intel, Apple Thunderbolt Strategies

Tibbils said Apple is large enough to be able to make other manufacturers want to create solutions that use the interface. Similarly, he said Intel’s goal is to sell processors which require chipsets such as Thunderbolt with different features built in, so as to attract different kinds of vendors – including Apple.

“If Intel wants to sell processors to Apple, they need to make chipsets that support the I/O that Apple wants to utilize,” he said. “Both companies will legitimize the technology. Intel can be the innovator in terms of the technology and Apple can lead in the marketing transition, yet again. Just look at the iPad and iPhone.”