Thunderbolt: High-speed I/O

Thunderbolt. Sounds like Thor’s sidekick. Remember Light Peak? (read Apple + Light Peak = Early 2011) An official-looking spec sheet for the new low-end 13.3-inch MacBook Pro has been leaked by fscklog. I’m not sure if this is entirely legit because the LCD is stuck with a lowly 1280×800 pixel format. The 13.3-inch MacBook Air was bumped up to 1440×900. I mean this baby has the Pro moniker tattooed on it. Anyway, there’s probably higher-end models that do have 1440×900. But back to Thunderbolt: if the leak is true, Thunderbolt is identical to a Mini DisplayPort connection. And that’s very interesting.

DisplayPort was developed to replace all external display connectivity options like VGA, DVI, HDMI and LVDS, an internal interconnect. Will Thunderbolt replace Mini DisplayPort as the standard external display connection? Or for that matter all external connections? That would adhere quite well to Apple’s design ethos: simplification. If you look at the side of your MacBook Pro all those ports with different heights and widths look messy. A row of three or four Thunderbolt ports would look much nicer. The only problem is that the leaked image shows all the other ports intact.

Since Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, when the company decides to go to next-generation technology it doesn’t keep old tech around. A prime example would be the original iMac. Jobs & Co decided that 3.5-inch floppy drives were toast and went 100% CD-ROM. Since then there have been zero systems with 3.5-inch floppy drives. Same thing with the ADB connections for keyboards, mice, and other things. Apple decided USB was it and ADB became extinct. Apple has done a similar thing with external display connections. First it was VGA, then DVI, and now DisplayPort, the Mini version. And now comes Thunderbolt that is identical in physical looks to Mini DisplayPort.

I think Apple’s grand plan is to slowly do away with all the other ports, starting with DisplayPort, moving toward other high-speed connections like FireWire 800/400, and eventually completely annihilating all other connections. In the long run and from a design perspective this sounds simple, minimal, elegant. And for anyone tangled up with cables of different sizes, shapes, and formats Thunderbolt sounds oh so good. Maybe Thunderbolt will replace the 30-pin connector on iOS devices, too.

Update: Anand Lai Shimpi, AnandTech:

Intel is the sole owner of the Thunderbolt spec. Building Thunderbolt devices requires a license to use the spec but no royalties need to be paid to Intel. Intel is also the only supplier of Thunderbolt controllers. Without Intel’s permission, no other company can make a Thunderbolt controller.

This last point is extremely important. The chances of Intel building a Thunderbolt controller for an ARM platform are very slim. Intel could eventually allow Apple and other companies to make their own Thunderbolt controllers, but that decision is Intel’s alone to make.

If Intel does not allow Apple to make its own Thunderbolt controller for iOS and if Apple eventually abandons Thunderbolt altogether then it’s effective dead.