Tracking Apple's other Intel transition

Apple has put the speedier Thunderbolt port in all its computers but one. How does this stack up against other big technology transitions the company has made in years past?

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read

With today's Mac and display updates in the can, Apple is just one machine away from having Thunderbolt across the line. That's the new speedy port that brings high-speed input/output to storage devices, displays, and other data hungry peripherals, topping what's available through USB 3.0 or Firewire 800 in theoretical transfer speed (see CNET's FAQ).

So far the number of gadgets that can make use of the nascent technology are few. In fact, it took months after Thunderbolt's introduction in Apple's MacBook Pro line earlier this year for the first purchasable Thunderbolt cable to show up. But the fact that Apple has made it that far in less than five months is no small feat. By comparison, it took the company a full year to move from USB 1.1 to USB 2.0 in its computers and LCD displays, starting in 2003 and heading on into 2004.

One stark difference in the two races for a faster port (besides the fact that Apple now sells more Macs in a quarter than it did during that entire year of the USB 2.0 transition), is that Apple's had a hand in developing Thunderbolt, and is the first manufacturer out of the gate to include it in its computers. While the technology started as an Intel Labs Project, Apple notes that the companies shared a "close technical collaboration" in bringing it to market.

By comparison, USB 2.0 made its first appearance on computers from Gateway and competed with Firewire, a standard that was developed with the help of Apple and that up until 2005 was a critical part of the company's iPod strategy.

Interestingly enough, today's timeline closely follows the one Apple made in the move from the PowerPC architecture to Intel's x86 processors back in 2005. That change, which began in January of 2006, was completed in August the same year and also represented a powerful deal with Intel that's going strong today. Apple ended up completing that transition faster than originally announced, but made no such promises with Thunderbolt. In fact, that Thunderbolt showed up first in Apple's MacBook Pro line suggested that Apple might have been keeping it as a high-end feature.

So that leaves the question about when the Mac Pro is getting its big update to complete the shift. It's been nearly a year since Apple released the last version of that machine, where it bumped up the processing power to 12 cores and beefed up the graphics card. The exterior design has remained relatively unchanged since before the company made its move to Intel processors. Add in the fact that the Mac Mini and the iMac now both have Thunderbolt ports, and it's a safe bet the technology will show up there too.

Of course, one thing that could throw off a nice and tidy Thunderbolt transition comparison is if Apple decides to bring the high-speed transfer technology to iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Those devices still depend on USB 2.0 to physically connect, but are not considered Macs.

Back in April, Apple was granted a patent fora new 30-pin dock connector that could take on "more new high-speed communication standards"--including DisplayPort, which is covered in the Thunderbolt specifications--pointing to the company considering a speed upgrade. Then again, iOS 5--which is being released as a free update later this year--cuts the cord altogether. It offers iTunes syncing over Wi-Fi, and will even let customers start using all the features of their gadget right out of the box, all without plugging into anything. Apple is unlikely to get rid of that port, not only because it's how you charge the device but also because of the massive peripherals business that's been built up around it. Perhaps then, whatever is unveiled at Apple's unannounced (yet entirely expected) music event in the coming months will include technology that will make use of Thunderbolt, and put all these new ports to work.