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How Intel turned Thunderbolt from a failure into a success

Gordon Mah Ung | June 3, 2016
A year after Intel announced Thunderbolt 3, the company's vision of 'one cable to rule them all' doesn't seem so laughable.

The third time could be the charm for Intel and its Thunderbolt technology. A year after introducing Thunderbolt 3 at Computex 2015, Intel is finally starting to see success with its high-speed external I/O—enough that even doubters might agree it’s winning.

You needn’t look far for signs that Thunderbolt 3 will succeed where its two predecessors failed dismally on the PC. This year’s top-tier laptops from HP and Dell, as well models from MSI, Asus, Razer, and Acer, all prominently feature Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Almost all of the high-profile laptops of the last few months have prominently featured Thunderbolt 3 ports.

PC duds: Thunderbolt 1 and 2

Thunderbolt looked a lot more like a flash in the pan four years ago when it was first introduced. Promising 10Gbps of bandwidth in each direction for a combined 20Gbps, Thunderbolt easily eclipsed USB 3.0 and its 5Gbps in the specsmanship game. Pitched as “one cable to rule them all,” Thunderbolt could carry PCIe and DisplayPort, and it looked like it would quickly eclipse USB 3.0.

In fact, the opposite happened. PCs that supported Thunderbolt could be counted on one hand, and adoption of the standard was even worse.

I can personally attest to that. At Thunderbolt’s rollout, I tested the interface with a Promise Pegasus R4 cabinet and experienced truly impressive performance. When I checked back months later, however, Promise had yet to release Windows drivers. That alone told me no one cared.

Intel itself didn’t even seem intent on making it a success. To ease the cost of integrating a pricey Thunderbolt chip directly into its Z77 motherboards, Asus built the ThunderboltEX add-on card, so only those who wanted the feature would have to pay for it. The problem? The ThunderboltEX card never received driver support. Beyond the eval units teased to the press, it never went on sale.

In one Asus forum, the frustration was apparent as one administrator tried to soothe a pissed-off customer who’d bought a motherboard specifically for the feature.

“We were unable to get the TB EX card certified despite our best efforts, so we were unable to bring it to market I’m afraid,” the Asus admin said. “Certification is a necessary process all TB devices had to go through.”

Intel Thunderbolt cables 
Thunderbolt 2 cables cost $50 when introduced. They’re still a costly $30 today. Credit: Intel

Even worse, Thunderbolt cables pushed a ridiculous $50. (The price of the proprietary Thunderbolt chip was itself a closely guarded secret.) The standard’s only real proponent in those days was Apple, which used Thunderbolt 1 and 2 across its MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, and iMacs. The rest of the PC world was indifferent.


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