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Anticipating 'Light Peak' tech from Intel, Apple

The next-generation high-speed data standard is backed by Intel, Sony, and Apple. How will this technology manifest itself in consumer products? I asked an Intel manager involved with Light Peak.

Light Peak promises to move big chunks of data like full-length movies in seconds and is backed by heavyweights Intel, Sony, and Apple. But how will this be implemented in consumer products? I asked Jason Ziller, an Intel manager heading up Light Peak work at Intel.

Will MacBook Pros coming later this year use Light Peak connectors?
Will MacBook Pros coming later this year use Light Peak connectors? Apple

First, let's consider the Light Peak pitch: "At 10Gb/s (gigabits per second), you could transfer a full-length Blu-Ray movie in less than 30 seconds," according to Intel's Light Peak Web page. That's encouraging until it becomes clear that there are no existing data transfer protocols--not to be confused with video-streaming technologies like HDMI--that support those speeds.

Enter USB 3.0. With a peak theoretical speed of 4.8 Gb/s, USB 3.0 would run very nicely on top of Light Peak. One problem: Intel will not support USB 3.0 on its upcoming Sandy Bridge technology, which will eventually be used by all PC makers and Apple in 2011. (Intel has confirmed the lack of Sandy Bridge support.) This puts USB 3.0 in a tepid-support purgatory, used only here and there on select systems and peripherals.

The rumor mills have been churning out the prospect of Apple adopting Light Peak, possibly in the first half of 2011. In support of this theory, an early Intel demonstration of Light Peak at its developer conference in 2009 used a machine running Apple's Mac OS X. And Sony has, in the past, endorsed Light Peak. "Sony is excited about the potential for Light Peak technology that Intel has been developing, and believes it could enable a new generation of high-speed device connectivity," Ryosuke Akahane, vice president of the Vaio Business Group at Sony, said in a statement.

But it's not clear how those companies will implement Light Peak. Another issue is whether Light Peak will be run over copper initially--not on top of light technology, as ironic as that may sound. Sources close to Intel's Light Peak initiative say that it will not appear initially as a light technology but, rather, on traditional copper cables. "We cannot comment on rumors," said an Intel spokesman when asked about this.

That didn't stop me from asking Ziller about this and other details that might help to explain how high transfer speeds will manifest themselves in the form of connectors.

Q: Will Light Peak be implemented initially in copper--not light technology?
Ziller: At IDF, we showed prototypes with demo systems that we had. But we said the final cable and connectors would be different when they go to market in 2011.

Could you review how Light Peak works?
Ziller: The way Light Peak works is that there is the Light Peak protocol and the native protocols such as PCI Express, DisplayPort, USB or whatever might be running on it. The native protocols run basically on top of the Light Peak protocol. But the Light Peak protocol defines the speed. The protocol is running at 10 gigabits per second. So, if the native protocols that you're running on top of it are also running at 10 gigabits per second, or something close to that, then the effective bandwidth for a device on the other end would be equivalent to that (10Gb/s). If the protocol is running less than that (e.g., USB 2.0), it's just kind of riding on Light Peak but the effective transfer rate would be equivalent to the native protocol (like USB or FireWire).

So what protocols will be running on Light Peak?
Ziller: We haven't publicly disclosed which protocols will be running on Light Peak next year. But think about some of the protocols (out there), some of them do run at 10 gigabits per second or faster. For example, HDMI and DisplayPort. DisplayPort 1.1 runs at 10 gigabits per second. DisplayPort 1.2 production silicon, I think, is just starting to come out now. You'll see that (DiplayPort 1.2) capable of running at 20 gigabits per second.

But HDMI and DisplayPort are not data transfer protocols, correct?
Ziller: HDMI and DisplayPort are video streaming. So, if you're talking about data transfer you'd be using something like PCI Express, USB, or SATA, or FireWire. Those would be data protocols.

What about USB 3.0?
Ziller: As you know, Intel supports USB 3.0. We've been working on that for a long time. And we'll continue to support USB 3.0.

Will there be any Light Peak demos at CES (Consumer Electronics Show)?
Ziller: No.