Intel's Thunderbolt interface was mostly a Mac-only curiosity until the company decided to bring it to USB-C ports, and now it is poised to become ubiquitous thanks to Intel's decision to allow any device manufacturer to use it without paying royalties.
The end of royalty payments will take effect next year, and Intel announced on Wednesday that it also plans to integrate Thunderbolt directly into its future CPUs. The two changes should make the Thunderbolt interface, which currently supports transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps, the de facto standard for data ports on everything from desktop PCs to virtual reality headsets. And it is emerging technologies like VR where Intel see's Thunderbolt's biggest promise. A Thunderbolt 3 cable can deliver enough throughput to allow 4K games on a virtual reality headset, according to Intel Vice President Chris Walker.
- What Thunderbolt 3 Means for PC Connectivity: An Explainer What Thunderbolt 3 Means for PC Connectivity: An Explainer
Other benefits include the ability for laptop and desktop manufacturers to greatly simplify the variety of ports that they offer. Thunderbolt, which started life built into the MiniDisplay ports of Mac laptops and desktops, can function as a monitor cable or a power cord in addition to connecting external drives and other peripherals.
"With Thunderbolt 3 integrated into the CPU, computer makers can build thinner and lighter systems with only Thunderbolt 3 ports," Walker explained in a blog post. "For the first time, all the ports on a computer can be the same – any port can charge the system and connect to Thunderbolt devices, every display and billions of USB devices."
Making Thunderbolt royalty-free should also make its peripherals and cables cheaper and easier to find. When it comes to external hard drives, for instance, Thunderbolt is still mostly limited to high-end models geared toward media professionals, like the $399 6TB Lacie d2.