The way we've succeeded is by choosing what horses to ride really carefully, technically. We try to look for these technical vectors that have a future, and that are headed up. And you know, technology, different pieces of technology kind of go in cycles. They have their springs and summers and autumns, and then they go to the graveyard of technology.
And so we try to pick things that are in their springs. And if you choose wisely you can save yourself an enormous amount of work versus trying to do everything.
... Sometimes you just have to pick the things that look like they're going to be the right horses to ride going forward.
-- Steve Jobs, June 2010
By the looks of it, Thunderbolt might not have been the right technical horse for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) to ride. Originally released in 2011 in the MacBook Pro, Thunderbolt adoption has remained tepid over the past four years, even after the newer Thunderbolt 2 was introduced. Apple partnered with Intel to develop Thunderbolt (initially code named Light Peak), securing an exclusive license for a year.
Yet even after Apple's exclusivity ended, other PC OEMS merely dipped their toes into adding Thunderbolt in their own computers. Even OEMs had their reservations. Apple continues to tout Thunderbolt as "revolutionary" and "the most advanced I/O ever." So why isn't it in the new MacBook that was unveiled last week?
One or the other
The new MacBook has ditched nearly all other ports in favor of USB-C. The only other port on the new laptop is the obligatory headphone jack. Apple calls the USB-C port "the most advanced and versatile one available." Thunderbolt and USB-C can't both be "the most advanced," now, can they?
To be fair, both interfaces are quite powerful and advanced. Thunderbolt technically has higher throughput, but USB-C is no slouch, either. And USB-C is the next evolution of the existing ubiquitous USB standard, so it will inevitably see rapid adoption.
Thunderbolt is better suited for high-end applications, such as daisy-chaining multiple large displays and storage arrays, or professional video workflow. For that reason, Apple may continue to support Thunderbolt and push it forward for its professional Macs.
But as far as the average consumer is concerned, USB-C will be perfectly sufficient and might even supplant Thunderbolt in Apple's consumer Macs. USB-C will have some convenience benefits over Thunderbolt as well, such as being reversible and capable of transmitting power for charging.
Is Thunderbolt the next FireWire?
There are a lot of parallels between what's currently unfolding and FireWire, another interface that Apple developed. Apple began to phase out FireWire from its consumer offerings in 2008, leaving it for the pros. Four years later, Apple ditched FireWire in its professional offerings as well.
It also just so happens that Google just jumped on the USB-C bandwagon last week, too. The search giant unveiled its Chromebook Pixel 2. The updated device got a handful of spec bumps, but it is similarly embracing USB-C.
As evidenced in the Jobs quote, Apple takes choosing technologies very seriously. In fact, the company actually considers this a service to its customers. Apple is a company that puts a lot of conviction behind its strategic choices. But even Apple can make the wrong bets from time to time.