Intel introduced a new technology called Thunderbolt (formerly codenamed Light Peak) on new Apple MacBook Pros this morning, and it could spark a revolution in digital video — sort of like MP3 did for audio 10 years ago.
Long-term winners will be computer makers and businesses geared toward amateur consumer video, like YouTube and Cisco’s Flip camera. Hollywood may not fare so well — remember what happened to the music industry — although there are better copy protection technologies in place for video today than there were for audio in 1999.
Thunderbolt is meant to replace USB, which hasn’t had a major update since 2000.
A lot has happened since then, particularly with digital video. The Flip camera and smartphones made video capture a mainstream activity. Hard drives got big enough to store hundreds of hours of video. But getting video from a camera to your PC, or from your PC to a backup device or other piece of hardware, has been annoyingly slow.
Here’s how Thunderbolt will help:
- Data transfer speed of 10 gigabits per second. That’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0. In practical terms, that means you can transfer an entire Blu-ray disc in 30 seconds, or a fat video file — say 2GB — in a couple seconds.
- It has two separate channels for both upstream and downstream transfers, and supports “daisy-chaining” multiple devices, so you can swap video among a bunch of devices at the same time.
- It will work with a pretty decent range of devices: a single Thunderbolt port supports both DisplayPort, a relatively new type of connection for monitors, and PCI Express, which is used on devices like backup hard drives. PCI support also means that it will be pretty easy to build adapters for other kinds of interfaces — for instance, Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet (networking) or Thunderbolt-to-Firewire (a previous transfer protocol that is faster than USB, but still 8 times slower than Thunderbolt)
At launch, Thunderbolt will appeal mostly to media creators and professionals, and companies like Avid — a big maker of professional audio and video editing software — are among the first to support it.
It’s also important to note that Thunderbolt is not going to revolutionise video by itself. There are other bottlenecks that can affect video performance, including graphics processors and operating system limitations. Broadband speed is also a problem once you try to upload all that video to the Internet.
But think back to when MP3 started to become popular in the late 1990s. Portable MP3 players didn’t store very many hours of audio, the sound was bad, the software for creating and playing them sucked, and it took forever to upload and download them on the dial-up connections most people had.
Over the next few years, companies like Apple gradually refined the necessary pieces and bandwidth increased. Now, almost everybody who has a computer uses it to store, transfer, and play music. Computer audio has become mainstream.
So look ahead five years, and it’s easy to imagine consumers creating, copying, and swapping huge numbers of video files as quickly and easily as they do with audio files today. Thunderbolt isn’t the only necessary piece, but it removes a big bottleneck.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.