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Why Apple is betting on Light Peak with Intel: a love story

Apple, Intel and the ports business

What Intel has and Apple lacks on its own is the ability to garner widespread adoption of new cabling schemes and the economies of scale that follow. Back in the 80s, Apple largely just ignored the generic PC world and its third-rate port specifications. While PCs shipped with RS-232 serial ports and Centronics parallel ports for printing and slow disk drives, Apple gave its Macs an improved RS-422 serial port that was backwardly compatible but offered the ability to accommodate AppleTalk/LocalTalk networking.

On the other hand, Apple also adopted the high performance SCSI interface for hard drives and printers and scanners, something that was deemed too luxuriously expensive for mainstream PCs. That subsequently kept SCSI and its interface support chips relatively expensive to manufacture.

Steve Wozniak's Apple Desktop Bus was adopted by Apple in 1986 for connecting together a variety of input devices and serial peripherals, from keyboards and mice to stylus tablets, barcode scanners and video cameras. Despite some use outside Apple by Sun and NeXT, ADB similarly never caught on among generic PCs, which continued using two PS/2 connectors, one for the keyboard and one for the mouse. That similarly helped keep ADB peripherals relatively expensive.

Apple then developed FireWire as a high speed cabling system that could accommodate the future needs of digital video and replace SCSI with simpler cabling. This too was slow to broadly catch on among PC makers. Intel delivered its own USB specification as a slow, ADB-like peripheral connection standard to replace RS-232 serial, Centronics parallel, and PS/2 connectors on PCs. While it didn't initially gain much attention among PC users, Apple adopted USB as a way to jettison both ADB and serial ports on the iMac, and kickstarted the market for low speed USB peripherals.

Intel then upgraded the USB standard to 2.0, a move that encroached upon the performance of FireWire (without actually delivering many of the features FireWire was designed to provide). This effectively killed any mainstream market for FireWire outside of niche markets, and again subsequently kept FireWire relatively expensive to implement.

Stronger together

On their own, Apple and Intel had limited success in promoting new standards into the mainstream; together, the pair seemed to be very complimentary partners. Intel acts as the establishment insider, holding down prices with high volume mainstream production, while Apple serves as the vanguard, pushing new technologies into an industry notoriously resistant to change.

Things don't always happen according to plans, however. In 2005, Apple and Intel began working with other partners on a replacement for VGA and DVI video ports which would complement the HDMI standard emerging in home theater applications. The new specification, called Unified Display Interface, intended to essentially be a variant of HDMI for use in computer applications.

Instead, PC makers such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo began adopting VESA's competing DisplayPort specification instead. Realizing that its main customers were lined up behind DisplayPort, Intel pulled out of UDI and backed DisplayPort in 2007. Apple jumped on the DisplayPort bandwagon last fall in its new line of unibody MacBooks.

With Light Peak, Apple and Intel are investing in a major project to deliver a unified new high speed cabling system that remains backwardly compatible with existing protocols and leverages state of the art technology while hitting a mainstream price point. Getting Light Peak to work requires a joint fusion of the core competencies of both Apple and Intel. Its success will benefit the entire industry, and solve a number of existing problems.

Port overload

Many port specifications overlap with others enough to make them redundant for mainstream users. For example, with USB and FireWire already on most Macs, Apple has ignored eSATA, a way to connect external SATA hard drives directly. Even USB and FireWire overlap enough to make it impractical to include both in some applications; Apple eventually dropped FireWire on its iPod line when USB 2.0 became popular enough to use and cheap enough to make FireWire a luxury. Apple also attempted to drop FireWire on its entry-level MacBooks, but recanted after customers complained.

In some cases, multiple signaling protocols can be combined in a single port. For example, DVI ports also supplied analog VGA pins. Apple also combined the MacBook's analog audio jacks with mini-Toslink digital optical ports to create a hybrid jack that can work with either kind of cable. The iPod dock connector combines component and composite video signals, audio, USB, and simple serial signaling into a single port. Apple once bundled DVI, USB and power together on a single cable called Apple Display Connector for its Cinema Displays. The company even developed a specification for supplying FireWire signaling over the same RJ-45 connector used for Ethernet networking, although it hasn't ever shipped on a production Mac.

With Light Peak, Apple asked Intel to develop a single data port that could supply multiple, high speed streams of data capable of carrying virtually any type of signaling: networking protocols like Ethernet and Fibre Channel; standard audio and video signals such as S/PDIF, HDMI and DisplayPort; and serial interfaces such as FireWire, USB, and eSATA. Using optical signaling, Light Peak can achieve very high data speeds over relatively long cables that can be very thin; copper cables have problems with signal attenuation, electromagnetic interference, and bulk.

Light Peak offers the capacity to upgrade existing signaling protocols to work over high speed optical cables driven down in cost by volume production. Additionally, with any type of signal available through a single optical port, both notebooks and smaller mobile devices can shed today's overlapping variety of limited capacity ports for a single pipe that delivers virtually any kind of data at extremely high speeds. This would allow a laptop to plug into a monitor via one thin cable, and then allow the display to offer standard jacks such as USB and Ethernet networking. Currently, Apple's displays need to plug into both DisplayPort/DVI and USB, which together results in a larger, more complex and expensive cable.

Teamed up with Intel, Apple can get a cheaper connector for its future systems, with development costs spread across the industry; Intel can get a partner ready to promote and rapidly deploy the new standard. Additionally, by working with Apple to develop a low-power mobile version of Light Peak, Intel can stay in the mobile business and hopefully someday impress Apple with its roadmap for Atom. Whether Atom can ever catch up to and surpass the industry momentum behind ARM remains to be seen.

Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)

Daniel Eran Dilger is the author of "Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)," a new book from Wiley available now for pre-order at a special price from Amazon.