Perhaps the most anticipated feature believed to be present in Apple's forthcoming hardware is the company's implementation of Intel's Light Peak high-speed interface, under the name Thunderbolt. Light Peak/Thunderbolt should allow files to be transferred between compatible devices far faster than existing consumer connection protocols like USB 2.0 or emerging standards like USB 3.0.
Light Peak's starting data transfer rate is 10Gb/s, about twice as fast as USB 3.0, and the technology is expected to scale to 100Gb/s over the next decade.
Apple has not confirmed any of this: The company does not comment on future products. But recent news reports all seem to point in the direction of a new MacBook Pro: channel inventory for current MacBook Pro models is dwindling; it's been almost a year since the MacBook Pro was last updated; there have been some leaked photos; and new MacBook Pro SKUs have been spotted at Best Buy, among other apparent evidence.
Intel demonstrated Light Peak and made Light Peak components available to hardware makers late last year. The company says it expects Light Peak to hit the market in 2011.
Noting that she too has heard rumors that Light Peak will debut on Thursday, Liz Conner, a senior research analyst with IDC, says that Intel has delayed implementing USB 3.0 in its chip hardware. She believes the delay is motivated by Intel's desire to give Light Peak a chance to gain traction in the market.
"Light Peak is significantly faster than even USB 3.0," she said. "That matters because all the files people are trying to transfer are getting bigger and bigger. Doing that on USB 2.0 takes forever. Obviously, Apple is going to try to get out ahead of everybody else."
Light Peak isn't expected to be particularly meaningful to the enterprise IT market. Companies that need to transfer large amounts of data generally rely on technologies like Fiber Channel or InfiniBand, she said.
But in the consumer market, it looks like a battle between Light Peak and USB 3.0. While Light Peak boasts superior specs and greater flexibility -- it's capable of handling multiple protocols, including USB 3.0 -- Intel's control of the technology could encourage other hardware makers to side with USB 3.0.
The result could be a replay of the history of Firewire, a high-speed connection technology backed by Apple that eventually was eclipsed by the less costly USB 2.0.
A major unanswered question is whether the next version of the iPad, expected to debut at a March 2 press event, will have a Light Peak/Thunderbolt connector. Anyone who has tried to sync a larger number of files or videos on an iPod, iPad, or iPhone can attest to the fact that the user experience would be better if the files transferred faster.