Can Intel sustain the thunder?
With Acer pulling out of team Thunderbolt, can the next generation of Intel’s Thunderbolt make it in the PC world?
Acer was once an evangelist for Thunderbolt. Last year the PC maker was right behind Intel, giving the company its unbridled support for its connectivity protocol that it had recently brought over to the PC world.
Now, that enthusiasm has waned.
“We’re really focusing on USB 3.0 — it’s an excellent alternative to Thunderbolt,” Acer spokeswoman Ruth Rosene said to CNET today. “It’s less expensive, offers comparable bandwidth, charging for devices such as mobile phones, and has a large installed base of accessories and peripherals.”
While Rosene isn’t quite right on the bandwidth front, she does bring up what is Thunderbolt’s inherent flaw and USB’s inherent strength: cost and install base.
Given these two formidable strengths from USB, can Thunderbolt survive in the connectivity market? Or is it destined to be another FireWire?
Thundering or floundering?
If last year’s Computex was Thunderbolt’s first weekend Frosh party, this year’s Computex was its homecoming. The super-fast connectivity protocol that Intel moved from Mac to PC last year seemed to be everywhere at this year’s Computex.
The jump between Thunderbolt 1 and 2 is big, enormous on paper. Thunderbolt doesn’t include more per-channel bandwidth, it just carries more channels. Thunderbolt 2 has four 10Gbps channels that are bi-directional and independent, which allows for simultaneous video and file transfer — or display daisy chaining.
OEMs are slowly catching on and adding the connectivity protocol to their respective devices. Motherboards, desktops, notebooks; there seemed to be dozens of Thunderbolt-equipped on the trade show floor. Intel said that there are now 80 devices on the market that come equipped with Thunderbolt, a “diversity of devices” is the company’s marketing-speak to describe the growing ecosystem.
But Thunderbolt’s trickle is slow. The protocol has been available on the PC for over a year, yet OEM’s enthusiasm for the protocol has been lukewarm. Part of that is due to the high cost of controller chipsets and cables (which have both come down in price since), but another part of the lukewarm adoption has been the lack of perceived need from the general public.
For those who don’t do multimedia production, the only conceivable use for Thunderbolt is 4K video. But with 4K monitors still at stratospheric prices and a lack of available content in the format, it isn’t a sustainable anchor. On the Apple side, Thunderbolt powers its massive 27-inch cinema display — a niche product that is quintessentially Apple because of its low sales volumes and high margins.
In many ways Apple’s cinema display is symbolic of Intel’s Thunderbolt strategy. Make it pretty with high sales margins to make up for a low sales volume. As Intel’s Jason Ziller admitted once in an interview, Thunderbolt isn’t aiming for mass acceptance: it’s aiming for a niche.