An iPhone concept featuring a Thunderbolt port.
(Credit: YouTube user Device Station/Screenshot CBSi)
There are loads of interesting features in the latest crop of smartphones in 2012, but nothing truly ground-breaking. The latest high-definition screens are great on the eyes, and faster, more robust cameras are welcome. But none of this feels like a glimpse into the future. For that, we turn to Apple. Not necessarily to the company itself, but to the furtive minds of its fans and the way the Apple brand gets these imaginations ticking over.
We published an animation, last week, showing what one such fan imagines will be the design of the next iPhone, based on all of the rumours circulating at the moment. There were the usual suspects, a 4-inch screen and a faster processor; but it was the inclusion of a Thunderbolt port that really piqued my interest. This rumour start doing the rounds back in January, on the back of speculation that Apple would make the port, used to connect iPhones to computers and docks, smaller.
So, what is a Thunderbolt and why would this be such a big deal? In short, it's an interface port developed by Intel (with a helping hand from Apple), designed to transfer large amounts of data (up to 10Gbps), and to connect a number of different devices. The connection can simultaneously interface with DisplayPort and PCI Express cards, so while its excellent for data transfers from hard drives, it's also used to connect computers to external displays and HD-quality video capture equipment. It's also been suggested that Thunderbolt could be used to share processing capabilities, so that a low-powered notebook could be plugged into an external display with its own graphics processor, and together they could form a powerful, desktop-like computing experience.
The problem for Apple is that no one else is using Thunderbolt, and while it's great that Apple devices interface with one another via this robust connection, the adoption of Thunderbolt is stalling, with limited compatible devices to connect them, to at this time.
Of course, this could all change with tens of millions of Thunderbolt compatible iPhones in people's pockets. Not to mention the millions of iPhone compatible third-party accessories. This, in turn, could inspire the widespread adoption of Thunderbolt by big-name computer manufacturers, which would have other smartphone designers wondering whether their next phone should make use of Thunderbolt, as well.
The advantages for phone users may not be immediately apparent. After all, who needs to transfer data, to and from their phone, at 10Gbps? For starters, a Thunderbolt port would be the new docking connection for iPhones to peripherals, and would be capable of handling video and audio sharing. If the other phone makers took up the Thunderbolt port, it could become possible to have a unified connection for all phones and all peripherals in the future. A tech-lover's utopia.
But, what if Apple also planned to out-do the LapDock Motorola with a Thunderbolt-powered super-dock? You'll remember the Motorola LapDock as the notebook-shaped peripheral for the Atrix smartphone that was powered by the phone's processor, but offered a larger screen and a full-sized keyboard. As much as we loved this idea, its lack of functionality and performance were painful in practice.
An iOS super-dock would need to be better, and with a Thunderbolt, it certainly could be. Let's return to the idea of plugging a low-powered computer, like an iPhone, into a powerful desktop dock. This could deliver access to; the web over 3G, your personal data, all your phone capabilities like messaging and calls, apps, social media logins — the works — but, with desktop like performance and applications, and a large external display.
Like I said, a game changer for smartphones.
There are technical hurdles that Apple would need to overcome, to bring this concept to reality. The Thunderbolt controller chip would need to be significantly smaller than it is in MacBooks, currently — especially if Apple intends to keep the iPhone as slim and sleek as its competition. The Thunderbolt cable could be slimmer too, and Apple would need to create a cable or an adapter, to interface with USB ports — or risk isolating the iPhone from existing technology.
There's also the cost to consider; a cost Apple would be wise not to pass on to its customers. This could lower the profit margins on what should be a very successful product launch for Apple, but if it convinced the World to give up on USB and favour this superior technology, it'll be worth it in the long run. If there is a company that could overcome these issues and deliver a game changer of this nature, however unlikely, it's Apple.