Will Light Peak leave USB 3.0 in the dust?

USB 3.0 looked to be next generation peripheral connections, but Intel's Light Peak may arrive with a bigger upper hand.

There was a sigh of disappointment this week from Mac users when Steve Jobs fired off one of his terse and cryptic emails to a consumer asking if we'd see USB 3.0 on a Mac anytime soon. Obviously, the answer was no (unless you own a Mac Pro, which ships with industry-standard expansion slots and can accept a third-party USB 3.0 card – something La Cie posted a Mac driver for this week as well).

For non-Mac users, this may not be much a news story (after all Apple is known for dictating hardware design very closely and providing limited expansion options in most of its products). Although, it could be noted that USB 3.0 has yet to achieve critical mass on any computer and is still quite a way off from being a standard PC feature.

[ See also: USB 3.0 vs. eSATA: Is faster better?

The interesting part of the story is that around the same time, Intel announced that the next-generation Light Peak connection is on track to be delivered earlier than expected, likely making it into shipping products next year. Apple worked with Intel to develop the technology that first demoed last year at Intel's annual developers conference and, if Light Peak, is indeed able to ship next year, Apple is probably holding off offering USB 3.0 to spur adoption of the new standard.

Apple, has after all, made the decision to offer only new emerging technologies in its products before (the original iMac pioneered widespread use of USB 1.x, for example). While not always the case, the company also has a track record of those choices later gaining traction in the broader PC market.

Does this mean Light Peak will beat out USB 3.0? Possibly, after all Light Peak has a lot going for it, particularly when it comes to performance. With performance as high as 10 Gbps, it eclipses every port for connecting devices to a computer (USB 3.0 comes in at 3.2 Gbps, USB 2.0 at 480 Mbps). If Intel can make good on its promise to scale that speed up to 100 Gbps over the next decade, Light Peak could eventually be the primary way to connect any peripherals to your computer (not to mention the potential of serving as a wired network connection).

So, how fast is 10 Gbps? According to Intel, fast enough to transfer a full-length Blu-ray movie in 10 seconds flat. That's a lot of bang for your buck. And that isn't all, because Light Peak is a fiber optic technology (hence the name), it supports cable lengths of up to 100 meters.

Beyond that, Light Peak's performance offers the potential to serve as a single source connector for multiple types of devices (displays, printers, hard drives and other attached storage, wired networking, and input devices). Reducing clutter and wires is a constant design choice by Apple, but it also offers a lot of potential for any PC or device.

Does this mean USB 3.0 is dead? Probably not, certainly not in the short run and not in the PC market. While Apple likes to focus on a minimal design, most PC makers are more interested in offering users choices in their configurations. Until Light Peak achieves a major dominance in the market, other connections will remain common, particularly on desktops. USB 3.0 also has the advantage of backwards compatibility with the USB devices of today and yesterday going for it (not to mention that is already a shipping, if not widely adopted, technology).

Overall, it's too early to say which technology will dominate the market, though Light Peak certainly does appear to have the upper hand for long term sustainability.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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