Thunderbolt: One year later

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It’s been almost 12 months since Thunderbolt made its debut on the 2011 MacBook Pro. In that time, just a few dozen Thunderbolt products have shipped, to the disappointment of users eager to take advantage of the fast connection.

The reasons for the lack of devices range from the technical to the financial. For Hitachi, implementing Thunderbolt technology into their products turned out to be a bit more complex than they had anticipated. Back in September, the company announced that they would begin shipping Thunderbolt G-Raid and G-Drive external drives in October, but had to put those plans on hold.

“The complex technical nature of Thunderbolt required us to take extra time with design, testing and quality assurance, as the inside of a Thunderbolt product is considerably more complicated than a simple USB device,” explained Mike Williams, VP and General Manager of branded business for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.

Unlike USB and FireWire, Thunderbolt combines video, audio, data, and power into one single connection, allowing up to 10Gbps of information to be passed through. The technology’s complexity even extends to the cable, where chips in the connectors on both ends of the cable help with the heavy lifting.

“It’s a developing process. It isn’t completely there yet, but we’ve worked closely with Intel and Apple, and now we’re seeing great performance,” Williams said. Due to the delay, Hitachi now hopes to ship products in the first quarter of 2012.

Sonnet Technologies experienced a similar situation. At the NAB Show in April 2011, the company announced a slew of Thunderbolt storage devices and adapter cards. Since then, only one product, the Echo ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt Adapter, is currently for sale.

Thunderbolt is a year old, and Apple is still the only provider of Thunderbolt cables, which cost $49 each.

“The overall development and testing is taking a bit longer than we thought,” explained Greg LaPorte, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Sonnet.

After looking at the cost benefits, Sonnet decided to put the development of Thunderbolt drives on the back burner and focus on making adapters. Instead of releasing individual gigabit ethernet and FireWire 800 adapters, as originally intended, Sonnet shipped the Echo instead, which works with ExpressCard/34 cards. “When we saw how much adapters would cost, we decided it would be better to put out the Echo to provide a better value,” LaPorte said.

In Blackmagic Design’s case, it wasn’t the technological complexity of the new protocol that kept their products from entering the market. Rather, it was the certification process. According to Dan May, President of Blackmagic’s US Office, products must be certified and approved by Apple and Intel before they are released. In the case of the Intensity Extreme, a video capture and playback device, that procedure added about a few weeks to the development process.

“We wanted to try making it so that the device was powered through the Thunderbolt port, which presented some new challenges,” May said. “It delayed us for about a month, but we got it out.”

May didn’t seem to mind the delay though, since he praised Apple and Intel’s way of doing things. “Both Apple and Intel have been hands-on in this. They’ve made the process smooth. Everyone involved said, ‘let’s make sure everything is done the right way.’”

Some manufacturers are waiting for costs to come down, as Larry O’Connor, CEO of Other World Computing, conveyed to Macworld. “Everyone points to the products that are out there and asking why we aren’t there yet,” said O’Connor. “But many of the same products pointed to, the number one complaint is the high cost. We’re waiting for the right performance, right features, and cost consideration as well.”

One example of that high cost is with the Thunderbolt cable itself, which currently retails for $49, and can only be purchased through Apple. The cheapest Thunderbolt accessory available is the Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt adapter, which costs $100—but it doesn’t include an external drive.

The companies that have released Thunderbolt products say they have been met with praise. Mike Mihalik, Senior Engineer and Program Manager at LaCie, said customers were happy with the Little Big Disk Thunderbolt Series, released last September. “The response has been excellent, with demand exceeding our expectations. We’ve had to increase our initial forecasts several times. Only recently have we been able to ramp up volumes to meet our worldwide demands.”

Despite the delays and current lack of devices, companies are still excited about the technology and its potential. Hitachi’s Williams feels that Thunderbolt’s biggest impact will be in video production. The new technology “helps laptops and desktops morph into full-fledged video editing workstations. Just imagine the blazing speed that you can get while editing in the field.”

LaCie's Little Big Disk Thunderbolt Series is available in 1TB or 2TB hard drive capacities, or with a 240GB SSD.

Several of the company representatives pointed out that Thunderbolt adaption will only continue to flourish. Apple recently announced that it sold 5.2 million Thunderbolt-equipped Macs in the fiscal first quarter of 2012, outpacing the rest of the PC industry, and the numbers are expected to grow.

More products were unveiled at CES and more recently at Macworld | iWorld, where Seagate and Western Digital demonstrated their new Thunderbolt adapter and hard drive, respectively.

PC manufacturers have also thrown their support behind the protocol. Asus and Acer have expressed their interest in adding Thunderbolt to their line of products later this year.

Blackmagic’s May thinks Thunderbolt could even show up in non-computer devices in the future. “Thunderbolt continues to push boundaries, so we’re definitely excited,” he said. “How great would it be to have a Thunderbolt connection in your car?”

Editor's note: Updated 2/10/12 at 4:15 p.m. PT to correct the timeframe of when Hitachi plans to ship new Thunderbolt products.

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