The last few years have seen some homogenisation in the world of personal computer connectivity. Unlike in other arenas perhaps, this generalisation of standards in the world of the home and office computer has been a good thing. Every device almost without exception uses the USB standard – it can not only connect devices it can also power them, doing away with the need for separate power cables in many instances. Some manufacturers stuck with Firewire in the early days of converging standards but its high speed could not make up for its occasionally erratic performance or the relatively high license fee demanded per PC by Apple. The freely licensed USB and then USB 2.0 ruled.
Now Apple is back with the excitingly named Thunderbolt, an almost unbelievably fast
connection that promises speeds up to 20 Gbit/s, and the ability to connect and power up to six devices through a hub. Thunderbolt, however, is also competing directly against USB 3.0, the latest incarnation of the ubiquitous connection. It can only offer speeds of 5 Gbit/s but it does offer backward compatibility with the vast number of USB 1.0 and USB 2.0 devices already out there.
Thunderbolt also offers a sort of backwards compatibility by being designed to use the Mini DisplayPort connector which already exists on Macs. This will mean a sort of limited compatibility with any devices which historically used that connection.
So what will the outcome be in this battle for the next generation of high speed connectivity?
Interestingly Intel, which is also part of the USB consortium, has been part of the development process for Thunderbolt – this was not the case with Firewire vs USB. This is almost certainly the reason why many device manufactures are researching the feasibility of adding Thunderbolt connectivity. Intel has released a development kit for any manufacturer taking this approach.
Of course, all these devices will still use USB 3.0, which may mean we have an extra port on our PC and on our peripherals. Perhaps the period of standardisation is coming to an end.