In this technology-driven era, a technology innovation promising to change the world or touted as the next big thing pops up every other day. The latest is Thunderbolt, which is an I/O (input/output) protocol that promises high-speed data transfer. Euromonitor International assesses the potential success of Thunderbolt.

Need for speed

The following scenario will strike a chord with most consumers: You want to save a file or film onto your thumb drive, and it takes ages for the file to be saved. Your patience runs out, and you cancel the transfer.

Thunderbolt (also known by its code name, Light Peak), a technology developed by Intel, promises to eliminate the problem of slow transfers. Essentially, Thunderbolt is a competitor of USB and, more specifically, USB 3.0. Thunderbolt offers a 10 Gbps transfer rate, compared to 5 Gbps for USB 3.0, and a much higher transfer speed compared to USB 2.0, which is commonly available on all computers and other electronic devices like digital TVs and mobile phones. Thunderbolt can work with existing HDMI, DVI and VGA displays via adaptors.

Speed is costly

Apple’s revamped MacBook Pro range is the first to offer a Thunderbolt connector, in addition to mainstream USB ports. Before USB ports were de facto interfaces on almost all electronic devices, there was another competing I/O protocol called IEEE1394 (more commonly known as FireWire, branded by Apple). FireWire offered a much higher transfer speed (800 Mbps) compared to USB 2.0’s miserly 480 Mbps. When launched initially, FireWire made its way into camcorders and computers due to its high transfer speed. Apple was also a devote supporter of FireWire. However, as USB gained popularity, in 2008, even Apple dropped FireWire interfaces for its computers.

The integral cost involved to support USB is cheaper than the cost of using FireWire, and manufacturers therefore chose the cheaper alternative. USB found its way into mobile phones, keyboards, portable media players and almost every electronic device. And, the rest is history.

Ambitious Thunderbolt

Other than competing with USB 3.0 as an I/O protocol, Thunderbolt also supports DisplayPort protocol. DisplayPort is a digital display interface, designed primarily for use between a computer and its display.

DisplayPort is designed to address the shortcomings of the ageing digital video interface (DVI) and analog component video (VGA) connectors. However, DisplayPort has failed to gain traction with computer manufacturers, which are increasingly offering HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) ports. The final nail in DisplayPort’s coffin is the fact that TV manufacturers have totally ignored both DVI and DisplayPort, in favour of HDMI interface. The presence of Thunderbolt will not mark the revival of an already dead display interface (DisplayPort).

In an increasingly connected world, where products need to communicate with one another, inter-operability holds the key to success. The advantage of USB is the penetration rate on electronic devices. Portable devices like mobile phones, portable media players, camcorders, cameras and computers are equipped with USB ports for transfers and charging. On the other hand, HDMI is ubiquitous on all digital TVs, BD players and, increasingly, on HD camcorders and computers. This is where Thunderbolt will lose out to USB and HDMI, despite being able to deliver on the promise of high-speed transfers.

Superior technology does not always prevail in the electronics world. A peek into the technology cemetery shows tombstones of FireWire, Super Audio CD, HD DVD and BetaMax. These technologies boast superior performance over their competing technologies. However, a lack of critical mass proved to be their Achilles’ heel.

Numbers game

Essentially, Thunderbolt is competing against more than three billion new devices in 2011, that are equipped with at least USB or HDMI. A typical product replacement cycle for consumer electronics is 24 months. The statistics look even bleaker considering that 5.6 billion units of electronics devices sold in 2009 and 2010 came equipped with at least USB or HDMI.

Working against Thunderbolt is the proliferation of USB-enabled devices. Products with USB interface are too deeply entrenched in consumers’ lives for manufacturers to drop USB completely in favour of Thunderbolt. Manufacturers who are integrating Thunderbolt support will also have to offer USB ports to ensure backward compatibility with existing devices.

As in the case of Apple’s MacBook, the laptop has two USB ports and a single Thunderbolt port. So even as Thunderbolt penetration increases, the number of devices supporting USB increases too. The same is also true as in the case of HDMI. New digital TVs with Thunderbolt interface will also have HDMI ports. This numerical gap between Thunderbolt and USB/HDMI will always exist.

Despite boasting superior technical specifications over USB 3.0 and riding on the clout of Apple Inc, Thunderbolt faces an uphill task in becoming the de facto I/O protocol. The simple rule in consumer electronics prevails: Strength in numbers.

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