Mobile Tech

Intel Shows Glimpse of Light Peak Device Connector

By Autumn of 2010, Apple may be ready to introduce a line of Macs using Light Peak, an optical interconnect technology just unveiled by Intel.

Intel showed off Light Peak at its developer forum in San Francisco last week.

Apple approached Intel with the idea of creating a technology that could handle massive amounts of data and offer one connector to replace all the different connectors used with computers, according to a weekend post on the technology blog Engadget.

About Light Peak

Light Peak is the code name for a high-speed optical cable technology to connect electronic devices to each other, according to Intel. Its bandwidth starts at 10 Gbps, and it could scale to 100 Gbps as it is developed over the next decade.

The technology can run multiple protocols simultaneously over one cable. This will let Light Peak users connect multiple devices, including peripherals, workstations, displays, disk drives and docking stations, all through one port.

Optical technology allows for smaller connectors and longer, thinner and more flexible cables than more widely used technologies today.

“There’s lots of advantages to using an optical interface rather than the electrical one we’re currently using,” said Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, who holds a degree in electrical engineering.

Optical interfaces do not radiate electrical fields and are more battery-friendly than electrical ones, Howe told TechNewsWorld. “Also, at some point, just like with Ethernet, you’ll find that moving electrons is a lot harder than moving photons,” he said.

The technology consists of a controller chip and an optical module that will be included in platforms supporting Light Peak, Intel said. Intel will supply the controller chip and is working with other components manufacturers to deliver the other components.

Light Peak

“Light Peak” full chip, laser on.
(click image to enlarge)

Intel expects the components will be ready to ship in 2010.

What About USB?

The announcement of Light Peak may have the effect of shaking up organizations devoted to the use and improvement of Universal Serial Bus, or USB.

“Light Peak was just announced last week at IDF and we are just learning about the technology along with the rest of the industry,” Jeff Ravencraft, USB Implementers Forum‘s president and chairperson, told TechNewsWorld. “There are currently no formal discussions on the standardization of Light Peak technology within the USB-IF.”

However, Ravencraft did not shut the door on Light Peak. “There is some consensus in the industry that as we move to higher data rates of 10 Gbps, 25 Gbps, 50 Gbps, etc., it technically gets harder to do that over copper wire, and the next transition is likely be to an optical interconnect,” he said.

That’s a wise move, Yankee Group’s Howe said. “You’re not going to get 10 Gbps over USB,” he explained.

Others such as LucidPort Technology, which makes USB controllers, say USB still has plenty of gas. “USB 3.0 products haven’t even begun to hit the market yet,” Adam Chen, the company’s vice president of marketing, told TechNewsWorld. “We won’t saturate the capability of USB over copper for another five years, and even then USB over copper has room to grow.”

LucidPort began shipping the USB300, a single-chip USB 3.0 to SATA-II bridge for external storage devices, in July.

Apple and Light Peak

Speculation is rife that Apple will implement Light Peak in a line of back-to-school Macs in the fall of 2010. However, Cupertino did not respond to requests for comment by pres time.

The iPhone is the most likely Apple product to debut with Light Peak capability, Yankee Group’s Howe speculated. That’s because Light Peak will make connecting the iPhone to other devices so easy.

“One really big problem with electrical connectors is you need a place to put the wires,” Howe said. “That’s why mobile phone manufacturers are struggling with USB connectors, going to mini-USB and then micro-USB.” Optical connectors can be made very small because you only need enough space to squeeze a light beam through, Howe explained.

With Light Peak, Cupertino will lead the market as it did with USB, Howe said. “Apple is known for finding things that make sense earlier than other folks,” he explained. “When they went to USB 1.0, the rest of the world laughed at them, but it became a standard.” If Apple adopts Light Peak, the chances are the rest of the industry will follow, Howe said.

However, even when and if Light Peak devices hit the market, USB devices will still be available. “USB will likely be around for another decade, and there will be improvements,” Howe said.

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