Apple Has Significant "Head Start" With Thunderbolt, But Not Exclusive

Intel’s new Thunderbolt interface, which made its debut this morning in an upgrade to Apple’s MacBook Pro line, may be effectively an Apple exclusive for quite some time, according to Intel. At their press release, held shortly after Apple’s update when live, Intel noted that the developer kit for the interface would be provided to other computer manufacturers this spring, and that they didn’t expect OEMs to ship with Thunderbolt until 2012.

It’s not exactly an exclusive, but it’s close. That’s a pretty big coup for Apple — assuming Thunderbolt catches on faster than USB 3.0 has, there are no roll-out problems, and plenty of applications. It’s actually a lot to assume, and although Apple is definitely a winner here, there are also some risks involved.

First, it’s likely that Apple’s “collaboration” with Intel consists of being the consumer test ground for the technology while it’s too expensive for most people and not significantly better than other options for casual users. Early rumors had Apple being “integral” to the development of Light Peak (the internal project name for Thunderbolt), but I suspect that was mainly just standardizing and dealmaking. Apple’s burned itself with Firewire, which, while still used by many professionals, is more or less a niche interface compared with USB. Apple likely wanted in on the next thing and volunteered to be the test subject, while contributing very little to the technology itself (apart from designing their boards around it, of course). It’s not like Macs get some kind of special powers out of the interface.

Second, the inclusion of this new tech isn’t really beneficial to users the way Apple tends to think of “beneficial to users.” Apple these days has a philosophy of “it just works,” and if it could, would make every port its own proprietary interface just so it would be totally under their control and in consequence totally reliable to all Apple-approved software and hardware. It’s what Steve Jobs’ dreams are made of. But Thunderbolt isn’t a technology that simplifies things — yet. Take a look at the left side of the new MacBooks:

Yeah, it’s kind of a jungle when you consider Apple’s keep-it-simple approach to I/O. It’s a transitional period for the hardware, in which Apple can’t leave USB behind because everyone uses it (though why they don’t upgrade to 3.0 is beyond me), can’t leave Firewire behind because it would alienate their hardcore buyers, can’t really include more than one Thunderbolt slot, and can’t use that one for anything but high-speed data (due, ironically, to their early adoption). It’ll be nice for some people to have, but really, the benefit to the average Mac user is minimal; they’ll appreciate the snappy and economical Sandy Bridge processors more.

Third, the advantage of exclusivity is pretty minimal, since the tech will be moving on over the next year and the move from copper to fiber will not only increase speed, but time and volume will reduce the cost of the hardware. For the moment, Thunderbolt is unproven, unbranded, and almost unsupported. And what happens if, say, the first batch has troubles? Or if USB 3.0 takes off in the meantime, and people can’t really tell the difference between 5Gb/s and 10Gb/s when they’re transferring a few dozen photos from their camera, or a movie from their external hard drive?

If Thunderbolt were a game-changing technology today, Apple would have themselves a genuine victory on their hands. As it is, I think they’re taking a risk being the first to support this young (but promising) tech — not that there’s anything wrong with that. How much of a win this de facto exclusive is will only be clear in hindsight. Now, if the iPad 2 were to have a Thunderbolt port (say, in that mystery spot, otherwise rumored to be a SIM), that might help push things in the right direction.