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Why Thunderbolt is Dead in the Water

May 24, 2011 | Howard Lichtman
Apple Thunderbolt.jpg
by Sebastian Anthony, via Extreme Tech

In 2009, Intel demonstrated the first ever optical interconnect for computer peripherals: Light Peak. It promised speeds of 10Gbps symmetrically -- 20Gbps in total -- over a single 30-meter-long fiber optic cable. Light Peak was low-power, and it used clever multiplexing to run multiple protocols over a single 62.5-micron fiber. Better yet, Light Peak could even piggyback on top of USB cables, providing socket backwards compatibility -- and to top it off, Intel said that 10Gbps was just the beginning: 100Gbps would be possible in the next decade! Light Peak, in short, delivered a delicious hint of what a fast, flexible, and future-proof interconnect could do. Then Apple came along and ruined everything.

To be fair, there was never really any chance of Light Peak, in its original form, being built into Apple's latest products. Optical switching and interconnects are only found in enterprise-level routers for a reason: playing with light is expensive. Light Peak was summarily binned and Thunderbolt was born. Thunderbolt is a copper wire version of Light Peak -- it uses much of the same technology, but it does away with the optical/electrical interface. Apple wanted to include a next-generation technology to rival or even beat USB 3.0, and a cut-down version of Light Peak was the only real option. In the same way that Apple championed FireWire for the replacement of parallel SCSI, Thunderbolt is meant as the next big thing in video and audio peripheral interfaces.

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