Thunderbolt and Light Peak

On February 24 2011 Apple (with an assist from Intel) attempted to change the world. Again.

Fizzy fizzy (fizzle?) – to be expected when you make Lemonade from a lemon.

That’s my quick take on Thunderbolt – it’s an attempt to make lemonade from a lemon.

Here’s the picture: Apple fell behind on peripheral connections. This is the attempt to leapfrog over everyone’s head and come out with something all shiny and new. Apple was first to use Firewire, first to have USB only notebooks, and then they stagnated. They made a couple of updates, adopting USB 2.0, changing to Firewire 800, but they ignored eSATA and USB 3. Their notebooks have always been somewhat crippled by a lack of external ports (I love seeing the big bags of holding carried by serious Apple users which contain the USB hub and cables and external drives and ephemera considered ‘necessary’).

The world marches on, and Apple belatedly realized they needed a new external peripheral bus. Thus Thunderbolt.

Except what they picked isn’t all that shiny, or new, and might even be regarded as a bit of a flop. LightPeak is Intel’s next-generation peripheral bus; based on optical fiber it promised multi-gigabit throughput and tons of interconnectivity. Thunderbolt has the 10GBit/sec throughput… but on copper wire. You have to believe something went a bit wrong between the lab and the showroom.

There’s some buzz generated by the incorporation of DisplayPort technology into Thunderbolt. How this plays out is still up in the air, but it does bring one thing to my mind: DRM. That’s right, along with Intel’s next-generation processors which include DRM on-chip, now the peripheral bus will also have Rights Management. Videographers might want to re-read the fine print on the H.264 licensing agreements… and contemplate. Of interest also is the sole-sourcing for Thunderbolt controllers (Intel) and the de-facto imposition of a royalty on implementation. It’s this last which effectively destroyed Firewire in the marketplace. Apple can be a slow learner at times.

Thunderbolt/LightPeak allows for seven devices, daisy-chained (one after another), with DisplayPort at the end of the chain. Theoretically there is 10W of power for peripheral devices – watch those batteries drain! Thus there is more peripheral power available, but far fewer devices can be attached. Right now that’s not a problem as only LaCie has Thunderbolt product in the channel. Only a handful of peripheral manufacturers have so far climbed onto this bandwagon.

One other thing I see from reading the specifications – Thunderbolt allows direct memory access to main system memory (this system operates peer-to-peer just like Firewire) and thus may well have the security hazards of Firewire as well – do you really trust that projector you attached?

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