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To Be or Not to Be Pro – Thunderbolt on Apple Processor Macs?

After yesterday’s WWDC keynote, we were left with many questions. As most are now aware, Apple revealed what had been speculated for quite some time – they were going to transition away from Intel chipsets for the Mac and begin producing their own. These new processors are simply known as “Apple silicon.”

A group of us at OWC (a bunch of brilliant people – and me…) typically have an online chat going during Apple events, and yesterday was no different. The musings consist of serious discussion, vagarious anecdotes, and plenty of inside humor. But these chat sessions don’t die once a presentation is over, they often pick back up after a bit of digestion.

Last night, the conversation resumed as OWC Founder and CEO Larry O’Connor wanted to further explore whether or not new Macs armed with ARM chips would support Thunderbolt (3/4). He had some pivotal thoughts, and the discussion that ensued brought perspective from several different angles.

I thought Rocket Yard readers might find the content of the conversation interesting and contemplated summarizing the back-and-forth. But then again, why summarize? After all, you might be interested in seeing how the sausage is made, so why not just post the thread in all its raw glory? Complete with poor grammar, typos, and sometimes hard to follow flow because we step on each other’s thoughts. You know, like when you are formulating a reply, and someone else gets ahead of you, it seems like your comment is floating in mid-air?

It’s an experience we can all relate to, so we decided to pass along the script of what transpired – edited only for formatting, to include a few links, and a clarification or two. Enjoy!

NOTE: If you don’t want to suffer through the entire thread and see what’s in everyone’s head, jump to the end. Larry shares his final summation.


TB or Not TB, That Is the Question.

THE CAST (in order of appearance):

  • Larry O’Connor, Founder & CEO
  • Mark Chaffee, Content Marketing Manager
  • Mike Hoorman, Creative Design and Content Manager (eCommerce)
  • Chris Anderson, Product Development Manager
  • Grant Dahlke, Brand Evangelist
  • Luke Engstrom, Category Manager, Network Storage

SCENE 1:

We pick up the story roughly 6 hours after the conclusion of Apple’s WWDC 2020 Keynote address. There is a light summer rain coming down, and we see a damp blog editor standing on the deck behind his residence. The grill is open, and he is alone, tending to roughly two dozen bratwurst. Why that many, we aren’t told. He hears a muted “ping” sound and feels a slight vibration in his pocket. It is a Microsoft Teams alert. He grabs his iPhone with his non-grill-tong-wielding hand and takes a look.

[Yesterday 7:47 PM] OWC Larry

So – anyone get info / know if that Mac mini development unit thunderbolt 3 on it?

Or what external ports in general – was thinking…. if thunderbolt 3 also out – the pros will be out in droves

[Yesterday 7:49 PM] OWC Mark C

The Developer Transition Kit consists of a Mac mini enclosure containing an A12Z system-on-chip. It will be supported by 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD for storage. Ports on the unit include a pair of USB-A ports at 5Gbps, and a pair of USB-C ports at 10Gbps. Notably, Thunderbolt 3 is absent.

That’s from Apple Insider.

[Yesterday 7:50 PM] OWC Larry

If production units have TB3 absent – that’s going to frost things over imho

[Yesterday 7:51 PM] OWC Mark C

I wonder how much it is because Intel is out of the picture for the chips.

Maybe they are still negotiating something for TB4.

Or just going to standardize USB-C with all Macs and iOS devices in the future to appease European/world markets.

(1 liked)

[Yesterday 7:55 PM] OWC Larry

Two different things there….. Thunderbolt 3 and upcoming 4 and likely forward use C connection….

it’s not an appeasement… it’s an abandonment. Thunderbolt 3/4 ports work with all USB C types (3.1g1 and later)

(1 liked)

USB doesn’t work with TB unless has that ‘section’ added. 

[Yesterday 7:57 PM] OWC Mark C

Would Apple sacrifice speed for convenience and standardization?

[Yesterday 7:57 PM] OWC Larry

This is bad on multiple multiple levels and means going to have a major exodus to PC / Windows unless there are some really amazing capabilities that somehow Apple singlehandedly pulls off that the entire Intel / AMD / Nvidia / et etc etc universe doesn’t have better options for. 

[Yesterday 7:58 PM] OWC Mark C

Maybe it’s just a licensing issue with these developer units.

[Yesterday 7:58 PM] OWC Larry

It’s not standarization. Thunderbolt is a universal C standard.

not licensing… but harder to do Thunderbolt outside a Intel chipset/processor system. 

we will see. 

[Yesterday 7:58 PM] OWC Mark C

Yep, that’s why it doesn’t seem to make sense.

[Yesterday 8:00 PM] OWC Larry

it doesn’t make a lot of sense… but if they do dump Thunderbolt…. going to piss off a huge portion of their customer base that they will lose forever.

[Yesterday 8:00 PM] OWC Mike H

I don’t think they have the answer yet for external usage. They’re saying this is the box you need for dev only. Unless you dev for thunderbolt. 

maybe

[Yesterday 8:01 PM] OWC Larry

It is true that Intel is certifying non-Intel platforms form the first time…

I hadn’t seen this.

in February. 

So…. so…. this might all be moot and we’ll see Thunderbolt on these Apple Processor systems too.

[Yesterday 8:02 PM] OWC Mike H

I don’t think apple would abandon Mac Pro 2019 so fast… 

I think it’s just a dev box

[Yesterday 8:02 PM] OWC Mark C

That changes everything.

[Yesterday 8:02 PM] OWC Larry

That would be seen as a total fake out machine then and would accelerate a shift of creatives to Windows.. 

Apple would be total consumerville. 

[Yesterday 8:02 PM] OWC Mark C

That’s kind of what I was referring to when I mentioned “licensing”

[Yesterday 8:03 PM] OWC Larry

yes. 

never been licensing fees- always certification requirement. 

[Yesterday 8:03 PM] OWC Mike H

can’t we just ask during the WWDC sessions?

[Yesterday 8:03 PM] OWC Mark C

Yup

[Yesterday 8:04 PM] OWC Larry

Tim [Standing, Vice President of Software Engineering, Mac] on that no doubt. 

yes

[Yesterday 8:06 PM] OWC Mark C

Did anyone watch the Platforms State of the Union? I haven’t yet, but wonder if anything might’ve been mentioned.

[Yesterday 8:17 PM] OWC Chris A

[Yesterday 8:17 PM] OWC Larry

Question now is what about production Macs

[Yesterday 8:26 PM] OWC Chris A

arm64 is the developer term, like in recent iPad Pros and iPhones


SCENE 2:

The following morning we find a now dry blog editor sitting comfortably at his desk, enjoying a large plate of scrambled eggs and bratwurst. He is powering through and attending to the dozens of blog comments that came through during the night. He hears a familiar “ping” – this time from his MacBook Pro – and hits ⌘T twice to toggle over to Microsoft Teams. OWC’s ever-vibrant and energetic Brand Evangelist joins the conversation.

[8:16 AM] OWC Grant

Saw this WWDC take from an “old friend” of ours….I had lost track of Jason and looks like he partnered up with Dan at SixColors.com:

The truth is probably that the future of the Mac is as a “pro” version of iOS and iPadOS. It’ll run more or less every app that’s available on the iPhone and iPad, but it’ll also run traditional Mac software. Over time, the distinction between iPad apps and Mac apps will begin to fade away entirely, and the Mac will just become a keyboard-and-trackpad mode of the iPad.

Like reading about our sun becoming a red giant and swallowing the Earth, or pondering the heat death of the universe, it sounds like a depressing story until you realize the time scales involved. If Apple handles it right, the Mac will fade away so slowly that by the time it’s gone, it won’t matter anymore. But it’s hard not to look at the appearance of unmodified iOS software on the platform and not see the endgame.

[8:17 AM] OWC Larry

Yep – that’s kind of been my view of what I’ve seen so far….. 

handled incorrectly – the Mac Pro 2019 going to be seen as a major hoodwink and going to have a mass departure of Pro users… which might not even matter for Apple’s overall revenue model consumer wise. 

But – we will see – we will see. 

[8:18 AM] OWC Mark C

It makes a lot of sense. In fact, with the last release of the iPad Pro and the Magic Keyboard, my first thought was that it was intended to replace the MacBook Air.

(1 liked)

[8:20 AM] OWC Grant

As I said to another old Mac industry noteable this AM… two things come to mind. Evolution never ceases. And “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” 

(2 liked)

[8:20 AM] OWC Larry

They aren’t there yet and the complexity and sheer size of AR and especially VR requirements and never mind as those step up in resolution – will keep demand on computing growing. Real question is where Apple is going to be in this mix 5 years from now. Do they care to be there or just the platform for consumption. 

The defining moment to me will be whether Apple deploys the first of the new Arm based Macs with or without Thunderbolt on the platform. February was the first time a non-Intel based platform was certified (an AMD) with Thunderbolt – so stands to reason that Apple can do the same now with the ARM based platform as well.

(1 liked)

If they do NOT…. and then Pros are going to scream – anyone with Type C TB3 devices going to scream… 

[8:25 AM] OWC Mike H

I actually think the pntifcations of everything being an iPad are completely wrong. IT’s the one device they’ve had to pull out of the ash heap to rework again as sales plummeted. 

You’ll have Arm chips for the entry level Macs first, while they ramp up cores and create new silicon, and then the pro level Macs will switch to ARM.. 

and it’ll be so seemless whatever Mac you by will be eitehr intel or ARM and ARM will eventually be fast enough to replace out intel for pro perforomance

right now the arm chips look fast enough to replace the bottom end.

[8:27 AM] OWC Luke

Arm is pretty powerful and since it’s more biased towards higher thread count, less wattage, it scales pretty well. It’s been used in industrial computers and military stuff for years.

[8:28 AM] OWC Mike H

and then, knowing apple… they’ll have 80-core macs… which will entice pro users becasue of performance

(1 liked)

[8:29 AM] OWC Luke

The api has to enable scalable compute with so many cores, as long as they scale the software we will have quoted smaller more reliable hardware but with very little user replaceable parts.

[8:29 AM] OWC Grant

on Mike’s vein…never underestimate people…both in an org and those that support it. Jobs upon his return to Apple:

“I had expected that all of the good people would have left. And I found these miraculous people… I tried to ask this as tactfully as I could, “Why are you still here?” And a lot of them had this little phrase, “Because I bleed in six colors.” Which was the old six-color Apple logo. And that was code for, “because I love what this place stands for.”

[8:29 AM] OWC Larry

The pivot to me will be whether there is or is not Thunderbolt on the first ARM Macs.

[8:29 AM] OWC Mike H

I do think Apple rushed the presentation and glossed over a few things and DID NOT assuage the pro users… but the pro users already have amazing machines that Apple will continue to support… they shoiuld’ve devote more than a closing line to that. 

[8:29 AM] OWC Larry

If Thunderbolt is there – then users rejoice IMHO – Apple’s not going to give up the Pro crown.

they ditch and abandon that – then it’s a whole new ball game. 

[8:30 AM] OWC Mike H

If the first ARM mac is the return of the 12-inch MacBook… do you care about Tb3?

I think they’re still figuring stuff out. hence the glossy presentaiton… short on substance aside from ARM can keep up.

not ARM is faster than.. ARM can keep up

[8:31 AM] OWC Larry

One thing about Thunderbolt – Intel went open source on it and Apple can also do their own silicon for the it as well… So yes – I do care if have to deal with some Macs that work with all Type C and some that only work with USB.

[8:32 AM] OWC Mark C

@Larry O’Connor, how would you feel about writing up a piece for the blog? I was thinking about this last night. Our customers and readers are probably having a lot of the same questions, and would love to know your initial thoughts – non-Apple-bashing, of course. More of “this is what Apple is doing and what I think the future might hold” kind of thing.

[8:33 AM] OWC Mike H

And Ii think you’ll see the rise of more dedicated processor functions, like a CPU just to do lighting and more dedicated processing with the rise of mulit-core… I think it’s exciting but Apple flubbed the presentation with flash in the pan. Jobs handled the Intel Ttransation perfectly reassuring current mac owners they wouldn’t be abandoned… and similarly to that.. the first intel Macs were not faster, they kept up.

(2 liked)

[8:34 AM] OWC Larry

Lots of good feedback here and can to toss some thoughts together and perhaps pull some blurbs in from this thread as well. 

(2 liked)

[8:35 AM] OWC Mark C

I think it’s okay to talk publicly about our concerns as well. 

[8:35 AM] OWC Grant

yeah…almost need to aggregate the comments here!

[8:35 AM] OWC Larry

I can sign my name to that. 

[8:36 AM] OWC Mark C

That was my other thought – should I post the thread as a “look inside OWC’s head” (smile) 

[8:36 AM] OWC Grant

obviously with some editing and review…. (wink)

(1 liked)

[8:36 AM] OWC Larry

I am happy to give feedback on such a piece – but that could be a super solid. Different perspectives.  

[8:37 AM] OWC Mark C

I always say that people love the human element in all it’s beauty and ugly.

Spelliong errors and all…

[8:48 AM] OWC Larry

After dealing with an overheating MacBook Pro 16″ for the past 6 months+ (finally at Apple now being repaired) – I am pretty excited at the prospect of an Arm Laptop with more capability than an Intel i9 8-Core that uses less power/runs longer and doesn’t also double as a portable heater. The big line, i will say over and over – is what Apple deos with Thunderbolt. This isn’t like when they tried killing FireWire the first time where FireWire was barely used for much beyond storage and some video…. No comparison at all… Macs without Thunderbolt will be a major shot across the bow to a significant user segment that will change course with such a sign of things to come (or really potentially then not coming). 

[8:50 AM] OWC Mark C

There’s the executive summary of this thread right there.


The scene closes with the blog editor aggregating content and preparing it for publication. We hope you have enjoyed this production of “OWC Chat Sessions.”

All kidding aside, we would love to hear your thoughts about Apple’s move to their own chipset and how you feel this may impact the direction of the company.

As for me? I need to heat up some bratwurst for lunch.


OWC Mark C
the authorOWC Mark C
Content Marketing Manager
A creative by nature, Mark is a writer, programmer, web developer, musician, culinary craftsman, and interpersonal artisan. He loves the outdoors because greenspace is to the soul as whitespace is to the written word. He does not like Diophantine geometry or mosquitos. Most everything else is okay. Oh yeah, he is also the managing editor of the Rocket Yard blog.
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24 Comments

  • Sometimes Apple has something else up their sleeve and that is why they are not adding an item. (about to show my age here) As I recall, when Apple dumped the diskette drives, the uproar was stupendous, as it was when Apple decided to dump the CD/DVD drives (though not to the same extent), and when Apple dumped the parallel ports, etc, etc, etc.

    here is always an uproar when Apple decides to dump stuff, but the reason they dump tech is uaully because they have some other new tech to meet or beat the one they are dumping – IF they are dumping.

  • The question is whether there is something intrinsic in ?Thunderbolt that would make it difficult to implement in an ARM system. If there is, Apple wouldn’t have it at first, or at all. If not, then I don’t see a problem.

  • @OWC Larry :”After dealing with an overheating MacBook Pro 16″ for the past 6 months+ (finally at Apple now being repaired)”

    Say what? I just spent huge $$$ on a 2019 16″ to try and wean myself off of my 4th failed 2011 17″ MBP. And you say it has the same sort of defect ???

  • I quite enjoyed “evesdropping” on your conversations. I’ve been an Apple user since the days of the Apple 2e and watched the waxing and waning of Apple’s fortunes. My wife and I still stay up until 2 or 3 am in Oz to watch the 2 or 3 major events Apple puts on in California.

    I agree with Larry that the loss of Thunderbolt 3/4 would be a hit to the professional audio and video users. I supply a number of clients with OWC’s high end TB equipment who wouldn’t be happy.
    For the future, I expect that the iMac will become a 24 or 27″ iPro, with no moving parts except for possibly fans.

  • I speculate that Apple is considering switching from intel to arm to build a new revenue stream ( cross platform entering white space opportunity) or to achieve a stronger bottom line by not competing with the Windows based Universe. After all how many buy macs to run windows? I think it rare. I think Apple will launch T3/4 arm machines, that will not require separate GPU, rather a parallel Arm architecture calibrated to higher performance with fewer chips.

  • From referenced tomshardware article:
    In the past, Intel didn’t allow vendors to produce Thunderbolt-compatible silicon. But in an effort to boost adoption, Intel abolished this practice in 2019 and handed the Thunderbolt 3 specifications over to the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF). However, getting Intel certification still requires a one-time fee, the details of which remain undisclosed. It’s unclear whether Thunderbolt certification will continue to be a thing after USB 4 is standardized in the market.

    Thunderbolt was a proprietary Intel technology, and though it operates over a USB Type-C port, it is capable of far more than just carrying a USB signal. It can also handle power delivery, DisplayPort and PCIe. Thunderbolt 3, therefore, can carry a bandwidth of up to 40 Gbps, which is twice that of USB 3.2 and four times as fast as USB 3.1 connections. Since USB 4 uses the Thunderbolt 3 protocol, it basically is Thunderbolt 3, so USB 4 will be able to reach that speed too once it’s implemented in devices.

    –Is this what everyone thinks it is and what they think it means? Apple wouldn’t need Intel technology to add at least TB3 to ARM Macs. They would only have to get it certified. It would be included in USB4 so (maybe) USB4 and TB3 would be same speed so vendors could decide how to implement the USB4 interface in their hardware. It would be nice if current TB3 hardware just works under USB4 specs without having to buy all new hardware. hint hint OWC

  • My opinion is that Apple did not want to put the time in adding TB3 to the system since it is not built in A12Z. But I guess we’ll see it in the production Macs except maybe the lend-end laptops. Is it going to be TB4? If timings work, that would be great.
    As for the power of the Apple chip, I am impressed. That was a plain iPad Pro chip and it was pretty fast. The final chip will be a lot faster even for battery powered Macs. I don’t expect an extreme number of cores since that is fairly useless for most apps and there is a diminishing return. The presence of the Neural Engine is going to push the development of AI apps on the Mac. I use Topaz AI apps like Gigapixels for increasing the resolution of images; even with an iMac Pro with Vega 64, it takes a good deal of time to process a picture but the results are incredible. Having a processor for AI should help a lot.
    The GPU inside the Ax chips are quite powerful and improving a lot with each version, What are we going to expect with the ARM chip for Macs laptops and more interestingly, the desktops? These days, I am building a flight simulator machine around my old 6-core Mac Pro 2010. I installed Bootcamp and an AMD RX580 card bought at OWC. It works well but the card is at 100% at low settings. If I get a top-of-the-line NVIDIA RTX 2080Ti ($1200), it is apparently barely enough when using VR and you need an external power supply. All this to say that the Apple GPUs could solve the issue of power and heat and affordability.
    I lived through the 2 previous transitions; the PowerPC was supposed to be much faster and better. In the end, we suffered painfully with slow emulation and a dead-end family of CPUs. The transition to Intel was easier. I thought we were pretty good but Apple decided to do another switch. I was sceptical at first but after the WWDC demo, I am more optimistic.
    The speed was impressive for such a small iPad chip. The “emulation” was extraordinary with Maya and the Tomb Raider game. Their “conversion on install” is a great idea that I still don’t understand how they can do it 100% bug-free or even 99%. We’ll have to check the fine prints on launch day.
    In short, I am excited for the Mac’s future.
    And thanks for this interesting article.

  • To almost certianly restate what others have already said, I wouldn’t assume anything right now. Back when Firewire was on every Apple product, Mac OS X Server (the Rhapsody version Apple shipped in the late 1990s) specifically did not support Firewire. Likewise I seem to recall the Mac OS X beta didn’t support it either, and again it was front-and-center of Apple’s tech tree then and support was completely ready by the time of Mac OS X 1.0, etc.

  • Thunderbolt doesn’t require Intel. I could probably put a Thunderbolt controller in my Power Mac G5 if I wanted to… But doesn’t matter since USB4 can do Thunderbolt.

  • Does this make the new Mac Pro Tower obsolete?
    Can the silicon chip be installed on the New Mac Tower?
    Can we trade the new Mac Tower in for the new Silicon chip Mac Pro Tower when it comes out.
    Are we screwed if we bought a new Mac Pro Tower?
    Will the the new Mac Pro Tower be redesigned?

    • Nothing being sold today is obsolete. They will have parts and OS updates for years. I’m still using a 2009 iMac with Linux as the OS.

      There will be TB of some type. At least TB 3 speeds.

  • I would have expected deeper analysis:
    1) Yes, a roadmap of hardware would have been nice, but that would also be a great way to Osbourne any Mac sales for the rest of the year.
    2) This kit is based on an A12Z. You can’t randomly tack thunderbolt on an A12Z that was built for iPad. The SOC Thunderbolt bandwidth requirements are huge, and aren’t built into the A12Z. If so, the iPad Pro should have thunderbolt as well. Apple was not going to build custom silicon just for the dev kit, and leak the full design and performance to competitors, and possibly get a bad rep if there are design issues not yet solved for new CPUs.
    3) The 3rd party certifications are normally public, and it would have been very hard for Apple to hide what it was planning from the public if they had to get certification from competitors (which is now what Intel is).

  • In the keynote (or maybe it was the developer thing in the afternoon) they mentioned that the Apple
    silicon Mac mini was going to be limited in features beyond what was needed for developers. That might have been code for ‘no thunderbolt on this machine but don’t worry…’
    I’d like to think that if Apple was to work away from thunderbolt it would be to add a new tech that exceeded TB in speed/capacity/expandability – they have thunderbolt to replace FireWire and it is exponentially faster that anything the FireWire tech had promised. Apple loves to play up speed capabilities of its machines and have SSDs that can push TB3 to saturation so they wouldn’t give up TB without having its successor ready to go…

  • I think the lack of TB is really simple: the A12Z doesn’t have PCI Express lanes to connect to a TB chip. The A12Z Mac Mini is an AppleTV on steroids just to give developers a test build platform.

    I think the first Mac chip is the M1, and it has 4 or 8 PCI Express lanes and TB either built in or on a translater chip, and it’s not that fast. The M1X or M2X for the MacBook Pro and the iMac give us real TB access for the Pros.

    What I drool over is a Mac Pro with 2 to 4 M2Z or P1 chips. We’d have to live with NEMA, but the number of cores available….

  • Jumping off the TB 3/4 train now that it’s been open sourced would be the height of folly for Apple. As Larry mentioned, the stampede of Pros to the door would be huge.

    Got to admit I would have liked to see a roadmap from Apple for the transition, since I’ve been through the past two. I was planning on upgrading my 2018 15” MB Pro to a 16” machine, but I’ve stepped back from that. I use Bootcamp a lot and I’m not too sure where that’s going.

    • BootCamp is gone on ARM (I believe it was mentioned in one of the sessions).
      So if it is important, get the 16in now and make use of it as it will likely be the last intel laptop with a large screen.
      I do get the feeling this was more a dev kit to get people up and running. That first Intel DevKit was a PIV in a G5 case, and mostly just served to give a point of reference for testing. I expect this Dev machine will be the bottom end of what they will deliver Mac wise, so that if it runs on this then it will run better on a shipping model.
      Could be wrong of course, Apple does like to do things their own way.

      • Yeah kind of thought Bootcamp was history. Running Windows in emulation works OK for basic stuff but is not ideal. Guess I’ll be looking at PC laptops…

        • I decided long ago that getting a cheap PC for testing and grandchildren use when visiting was more economical in time & money than any form of running Windows on a Mac.

  • Let’s wait for Tim Standing’s input. Surely he will dig into the engineering wisdom for some clarification.