Charles Moore's Mailbag

Thunderbolt's Superiority Doesn't Mean It Will Succeed, Perfect Screen Size and Resolution, and More

Charles Moore - 2011.11.28 - Tip Jar

Thunderbolt: Superiority Doesn't Imply Success

From RedZone,

Dear Mr. Moore,

Hello. I've been wondering for some time about all this hubbub about Thunderbolt. I'm wondering specifically if the technology really has any chance to penetrate the market. Now, I'm no businessman, but I do know this: the Itanium line, though far superior to Intel's x86 line in innumerable ways, did not make it as a consumer processor because consumers didn't know what it was and were still more familiar with the "Pentium" name - plus they were also familiar with AMD, who pushed Itanium out of the way with the invention we now know as x64, or more accurately 64-bit x86. The Itanium sank in the consumer market and found use only as a server line.

Now we have Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is superior to USB in just about every way. The fact that it is (mostly) a new design as opposed to something built within and on top of the confines of old frameworks helps it to achieve much of this superiority. USB 3.0 is by contrast clearly a ship-in-a-bottle, impressive to look at once built but ultimately impossible to take out of the bottle intact. The secret behind the speed boost of USB 3.0 is that there is actually an entirely new bus called "SuperSpeed" housed within the old USB 2.0 cable.* USB 3.0 capable computers use this bus instead of the actual USB bus when a USB 3.0 cable is connected, and USB 2.0-only computers just use the USB 2.0 bus, completely unaware that the SuperSpeed bus exists. The backwards compatibility and the squeezing of the new design into the old is certainly a feat, but it makes the technology more complex and limits the length of the cable.

Similarly, the x86 line has continually tacked new instructions, improvements, and modes onto the ends of the old ones, continually adding new functionality and maintaining backwards compatibility but requiring all x86 OSes to jump through hoops to enable new functionality and requiring the processor itself to jump through hoops to make the old functionality still work the way it did before. This balancing act is so precarious that it is no wonder that Intel tried to phase out x86 and phase in Itanium, which was an entirely new architecture boasting the best innovations of the day while having none of the hindrances of the x86 line. But consumers didn't have any way of knowing anything was different, and even if they did know, chances are they wouldn't have cared. x86 was what they knew and what ran everything they already had, and so x86 won out. With that in mind, much as I want Thunderbolt to succeed, I fear it too will fade into obscurity because it is largely unknown to consumers while USB by contrast is very well known. It doesn't matter the limitations imposed by adding new technology onto old - the consumer will want what they know and what works with everything they have. You can't make a new technology with a new name that does the exact same thing as something old and known and expect the new thing to get more than a niche market. As much as we love the Mac and as much as its popularity has been gaining in recent years, for a long time Windows dominated simply from inertia, even in light of Macs' superiority. What allowed Apple to break into the consumer market past Microsoft was to make products that did different things from what had been done, or that did the same things in ways visibly different to the consumer.

Sadly, cool though Thunderbolt is from a technical standpoint, I doubt it will hold any impact in the eyes of the general consumer.


* Publisher's note: This is not technically correct. USB 3 cables have twice as many wires as USB 2 cables - one set of wires for older USB speeds and one set for SuperSpeed USB - and it is not possible to access the USB 3 SuperSpeed mode with USB 2 cables. USB 1.1 and 2.0 support cable lengths to 5m (appr. 16'), while USB 3.0 has a practical maximum length of 3m (appr. 10'). dk

Hi RedZone,

I've long been a big FireWire fan, and have always regarded USB 2.0 as a poor substitute for data I/O. Unfortunately, FireWire never established real traction in the Windows PC world, partly because of Apple's licensing demands.

I think Thunderbolt has a better shot at becoming an industry standard for several reasons, notably that it's Intel technology with that entity's market clout, and also the fact that Apple has a lot more market share (some 14% in the US) - and consequently influence - now than it did back when it rolled out FireWire in the late '90s.

Thunderbolt is also technically more versatile than either FireWire or the USBs ever have been.


Publisher's note: See Why FireWire Failed and Thunderbolt Won't for other factors that contributed to FireWire's failure to attain traction in the market. USB 3 is undoubtedly going to be a huge success, but Thunderbolt offers so much more than the simple serial bus of USB. dk

14" PowerBook G3: Perfect Screen Size and Resolution

From Lloyd:

Dear Charles,

It is always a pleasure to see your Mac musings in print. (Since we seem to view the world the same way, I recognize your touch of genius.) On the subject of screen resolution, I personally prefer using a laptop, and the best screen I've used is that of the PowerBook G3 series. My old Pismo and the WallStreet 266 MHz I have now both had exactly what I wanted: A screen that sized more like a sheet of paper - tall, not wide - and the surface was less glossy than subsequent models. (I write this to you on a 2.4 GHz MacBook laptop because it handles WPA encryption; otherwise, the old WallStreet would be a daily driver.) The less-bright, no-glare WallStreet display does not fatigue my eyes, even after long use, while I find that the MacBook's [glossy] display eventually does. (The WallStreet's keyboard is also easier on my fingers, another reason for keeping the old tank around.)

Widescreen glossy displays seem more suited to video consumption; as that isn't what I want a computer for (a la your previous column about 'car' vs. 'truck' computing), the display, which may be perfect for what it was designed for, does not suit the way one made for a productivity machine like the old PowerBooks does. That's my two cents.


Hi Lloyd,

Always a pleasure to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words. Once again we are in harmony on the excellence of the old PowerBook G3 Series. I've never been able to decide whether I liked the WallStreet keyboard or the bronze Lombard/Pismo keyboard the best, but there is no equivocation in naming them jointly as the best computer keyboards I've ever encountered, bar none.

I'm not quite as effusively enthusiastic about the Pismo display as you are, but I do agree about the aspect ratio, and while eyestrain has never been an issue for me with laptop SuperTwist (remember passive matrix?) or TFT displays, I comprehend what you mean about the brightness of the newfangled LED backlit units.

I do think that the 14.1" Pismo display has the right resolution for that size screen at 1024 x 768 - not so much that same resolution on my 9.7" iPad display, which I do find causes eyestrain due to a combination of really glaring brightness and small size text rendering on many websites. Makes me wonder what text is going to look like on the iPad 3, with its rumored twice the display resolution of the 2.

I'm also with you on productivity and laptops. The iPad is an excellent content viewing device, except for the aforementioned eyestrain issue. I can't imagine ever trying to read a full-length book on the iPad, but I do a lot of my Web surfing and email on the 'Pad, and with the new Google Search app (essentially Chrome for iOS) and the superb new German text editor Textkraft, the 'Pad is beginning to show some possibilities as a productivity machine, at least for research and rough drafting.


More Post-Arrival iPad Thoughts

From Alex:

Took me a while to come up with an update. I have, and here it comes:

Being low on money (depend on student loans for disposable cash after buying tuition sadly most), I have no money at present to replace any of my key electronics, so when I hear about how onerous it is to upgrade to iOS 5, both on the computer syncing the iPad and on the iPad itself, and since it is already plenty annoying enough in iOS 4.3.3, I will probably not be updating it to iOS 5, and I pity you who for work reasons had to upgrade your iPad 2 to iOS 5, thinking I'll take my at least slightly more responsive to my needs, wants, and desires iPad 1 with iOS 4.3.3 and run with it, and be as happy as possible (although iOS 3.2 would be my dream version, Apple won't let you downgrade - that really disappoints me!)

I feel sorry that your job leaves you saddled with an iPad you don't really want running an OS version you really dislike. My funds may be more limited and my iPad may be older, but iOS 4.3.3 is so much closer (even though it's not really close at all) it's sad.

Hi Alex,

Thanks for the follow-up.

Updating, since the initial issues with upgrading to iOS 5 were ironed out, it's been solid as a rock.

Gesture-based switching between open apps instead of repeatedly pumping the Home button has alone been worth the upgrade hassles. There's also a new iPad word processor/text editor called Textkraft that looks like it's going to solve some of the iOS text selection/editing issues and has potential to be a game-changer.


New Machine = New Software?

From Scott:


I enjoy your column even at times like now, when I don't agree with it. I often hear people like Jonathan who are Linux users complaining about the Mac and how they should be able to tweak every bit of it to their heart's content. And I read many comments about the App Store and the "walled garden" Apple's created. And so often, I read this complaint but no detailed idea of what they should be doing. So, I have to ask - specifically what do you exactly mean by "open" and what is it you'd have Apple do?

I think the App Store, while not perfect, will help most users keep their software updated, instead of using Software Update and updating the OS but not the other applications they're using and wondering why something doesn't work. And I don't know if this is one of your complaints, but I'm also curious when people want to buy a new machine but don't want to update any other software. I think it's unreasonable to buy a new machine and keep the OS updated, but try to keep a piece of software from 1999 running on it.

As far as Jonathan's iPad/iOS 5 comments, there are a number of stylus type devices already on the market. Again, maybe he's got a specific product in mind that doesn't already exist. If so, he should contact a manufacturer and see if they can implement that.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

Scott C.

Hi Scott,

Thanks! I appreciate your affirmation of potentially constructive dialog even when there is disagreement.

What do I not like about the App Store paradigm? Where do I start. Essentially it's the lack of user autonomy and independence. I like being able to download a software installer to keep on file and reinstall whenever I need/want to regardless of whether I have Internet access at the time and without the hassle of having to enter an Apple ID, I haven't upgraded to OS X 10.7 Lion yet and don't intend to anytime soon, but the many accounts I've read sound like it's a major pain compared with being able to buy a DVD and re-up anytime offline. I never used Software Update for OS updates, but rather downloaded the Combo Update installer and proceeded at my leisure. There are workarounds with Lion that make something like that possible with considerable hassle, but it sucks compared with the old way.

I have an extensive library of software installers that dates back to 1992, and it's been remarkable how many of them remained usable with OS X until Apple killed off Classic Mode in OS X 10.5 Leopard. I can still use the copy of Microsoft Word 5.1 that I bought back in 1993 on my two machines still running OS X 10.4 Tiger, and being that I probably have a thousand or so Word 5.1 document archived, being able to access them with full formatting intact is more than an interesting exercise.

Then there's my recent experience upgrading my iPad to iOS 5, which ate all my installed apps, obligating redownloading them all. In most instances stored data that hadn't been backed up to Dropbox or back to my Mac were lost as well. Leaves a bad taste. In my nearly 20 years on Macs, I've never had any significant data loss associated with software updates (and precious little for any reason).

I tend to run recent software unless there's a compelling reason not to. For example, most of the time I'm running alpha or beta Web browsers. However, there are a number of applications containing PowerPC code that have no satisfactory Intel native substitutes, so that's another roadblock to using Lion.

I'm never going to be a thoroughgoing Cloud computing aficionado, and I vigorously resist the push to become Cloud dependent, effectively turning our computers into dumb clients. I have Dropbox and accounts, and mostly use Gmail for email, and I trust all of them more than I do Apple to not shut me out with arbitrary obsolescence. For example, Dropbox works great with my old Pismo PowerBooks running Tiger, as well as my Snow Leopard machine and my iPad. For iCloud, I would be obliged to upgrade to Lion. Boo, hiss.

This reply has turned into a bit of a rant, and I could go on (and on and on), but I will spare you. It's a matter of philosophy I guess, and Apple's current trajectory is at odds with mine.


Publisher's note: "I think it's unreasonable to buy a new machine and keep the OS updated, but try to keep a piece of software from 1999 running on it." I have to disagree with Scott. We still use Claris Home Page 3.0 (last updated in 1997) at Low End Mac headquarters, and it runs just fine in Classic Mode under OS X 10.4 Tiger. I haven't yet found a better low-cost or free replacement for it, although BlueGriffon (which requires an Intel Mac and OS X 10.5 or newer) is promising. I also still use AppleWorks 6.2.9 (last update 2003), Photoshop Elements 3.0 (2004), and TextWrangler 2.3 (2008), which I use in preference to newer versions because of its feature set. Home Page keeps me using a PowerPC Mac with OS X 10.5, and AppleWorks and Photoshop Elements keep me from moving to OS X 10.7 Lion, which will not run either program. Given the choice between a new OS that doesn't run my familiar apps and an older OS that does, I'll stick with what I know works. dk


I can see your point about keeping an archive of things as well as not having Internet access to re-download something. However, I'm seldom without access, so perhaps that's why it hasn't been an issue for me. When I updated my gen 1 iPad to iOS 5, iTunes came up with a message about performing a backup before installing it and that it would wipe out the device.

I personally use SugarSync after Dropbox's not exactly clear statements on their security policy, from "everything's encrypted, we can't see it" to "we can get at the files if we need to" to "well, only select employees have access to that". That turned me off of them. SugarSync also allows 5 GB for free.

Personally, I think if I'm upgrading the OS, that I should expect to upgrade most of my software to go with it. I wouldn't buy a BMW 7 series car and ask that the tires from my Honda Civic be put on it.

I also think the Cloud thing will take a leap forward, then as processors become more powerful and bandwidth is choked by providers again, we'll shift back toward being more machine centric. Then bandwidth will catch up and pass where we are, and everything will be stored in the Cloud again. I may be wrong, but it wouldn't be the first time. Heck, if Intel doesn't get their act together, Apple might just be making processors for everything in their lineup in a few years.

I do have the older Macs, including a clamshell iBook and white iBook, a Pismo, a Titanium 1 GHz, and even a Duo 270c and PowerBook 165, but seldom fire them up anymore. I particularly want to use the Titanium with OS 9, just because I think OS 9 at 1 GHz on a G4 is pretty snappy. I'd love to use the Duo, since it was my first Mac, but time is the real culprit. Not enough of it.

Thanks for listening to my side, and more importantly, thanks for the discussion. Keep up the good work. Whether I agree or not, I'll enjoy it.


Hi Scott,

When one lives in a remote rural redoubt like I do, one doesn't take Internet access for granted. For me it ends 150 feet from my router. The nearest public hot spot is 12 miles away, and after that it's at least another 40. We also get relatively frequent power and Internet outages. I miss the dependability of dial-up, but it's useless for online software downloads.

I must check out SugarSync for possible future reference, but I notice that it requires Mac OS X 10.5 or later, which deals my Pismos out of the equation, so is a nonstarter for me at this point. I don't put anything really sensitive up on Dropbox, so their security issues, which I was aware of, haven't been much of a concern to me.

Being a consummate car enthusiast, I frequently use automotive analogies too, although for me computers are more akin to toolboxes - another analogy that comes naturally to me, since I've made my living by times as an auto mechanic and a carpenter/cabinetmaker. I don't expect to have to replace my entire toolset when I buy a new saw or wrench.

However, my computer philosophy also approximates my automotive philosophy in the sense that I buy older cars and keep them a long time. For example, we bought our 1990 Toyota Camry in 1998, and it's still my wife's daily driver.

I spend nearly as much time on my 11+ year old Pismos as I do my Snow Leopard Core 2 Duo MacBook, typically 4-5 hours a day, so backwards-compatibility is a huge issue for me.

I do agree about the likelihood of Apple switching its Mac systems to ARM A-series in-house in the mid-term.

Thanks for the discussion.


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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at and a columnist at If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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