2010-10-30

Apple, Intel, and Light Peak: news and predictions

Recap: USB2 is becoming too slow. Most hard drives are approximately twice as fast as its maximum speed in practice, while flash sticks can be 5 times faster and more:
  • HSPA (3G): 14 Mbit/s (down), 5.8 Mbit/s (up)
  • LTE (4G): 100 Mbit/s (down), 50 Mbit/s (up)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11n: 130 MBit/s
  • Gigabit Ethernet: 300MBit/s (under real-world conditions)
  • USB2: 480 Mbit/s (real world: ca. 200 Mbit/s)
  • Fast hard drive: 80 MB/s (640 Mbit/s). RAIDs are obviously faster.
  • Firewire 800: 786.432 Mbit/s
  • Fast flash memory: read 200 MB/s (1.6 Gbit/s), write 100 MB/s (800 Mbit/s)
  • Firewire 3200: 3.2 Gbit/s
  • USB3: 4.8 Gbit/s
  • Light Peak: 10 Gbit/s
Thus, people are looking for a successor to USB2. USB3 has already been on the market for a while, but Intel and Apple are pushing a completely new optical standard called Light Peak. I suspect that this is the reason why it takes both companies so long to support USB3 (if they ever do it). The vision for a fast connector is enticing: You can support power, video, audio, and data via a single plug. It might also give us a power socket that is internationally available. If many locations have such sockets in the future, we don’t need to carry a power supply unit with us, any more. It’s obvious that the socket-hating Apple shares this vision. The main advantage of USB3 is that it is completely compatible with USB2: USB3 devices work with USB2 computers and USB3 computers work with USB2 devices. But USB3 has a few disadvantages:
  • thick, relatively short cables
  • no master-to-master communication, e.g. to network two computers
  • unwieldy and fragile connectors (e.g. plugging in USB blindly is risky)
In contrast, Light Peak has thin cables that are up to 100m long and is fully symmetrical. There are several options for its plugs [1], some of them better than USB [2].

I predict that Apple will do the following with Light Peak:
  1. Macs and MacBooks: Light Peak will replace as many connectors as possible. Apple’s displays already function as docking stations. If a Light Peak connector can be used to power the MacBook (as opposed to the MacBook powering a connected device) then only a single cable is needed for the display to provide video, sound, additional ports, and power. Currently, 3 cables are used (power, DisplayPort, USB). Light Peak can also transport foreign protocols over its wire which means that USB could be at a docking station, but not at the portable device (which is admittedly too radical as long as USB sticks are popular).
  2. iPad, iPhone, iPod: Light Peak will (eventually) replace the current dock connector. This would be a huge gamble, but enable many new applications, including connecting an iOS device to a full-blown docking station.
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