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A theory of Apple's all-in on Thunderbolt 3

If you are reading this, I’ll assume you already know that the new MacBook Pros announced on Oct. 27th come with Thunderbolt 3 ports only.

Having only these ports will make the transition to the new machines less frictionless for those customers that are using external devices (e.g. hard drives, USB hubs, mice, keyboards). It’s hard to tell what percentage of MacBook Pro users have at least one external device connected to their laptop. I don’t know if such information can be or is actually tracked by Apple.

Why would Apple ship new machines that will inconvenience some of its customers?

People with better knowledge of Apple’s history will point out that this wouldn’t be the first time Apple dropped support for some popular, or at least still in use, technology in favor of something new. As far as I can tell, these past decisions were made for making room for some significant improvements or getting rid of decaying technologies.

I know that some of these decisions could also be explained by business reasons. Take for example the removal of optical drive. Besides the technical reasons, another explanation for this decision could’ve been that it had the potential of increasing revenues from the iTunes store.

The past can only tell us that Apple is willing to make such decisions, but not necessarily explain the current one.

My theory is that Apple believes, deeply, that the future1 belongs to Thunderbolt 3. The technical advantage of Thunderbolt 3 is obvious, but it cannot explain the all-in strategy. Instead of waiting for this future to happen at the speed of device vendors, Apple wants to speed it up by going all-in.

Apple is one of the top laptop vendors. It doesn’t have the largest share, but it’s among the top 5. Customers getting the new MacBook Pros will probably rely initially on a series of converters for external devices, but soon they’ll expect native Thunderbolt 3 ones. This will create market pressure on device vendors to go Thunderbolt 3 or at least USB-C.

The first counter-argument for this theory is that Apple has a small market share (somewhere between 5-7%) and the new MacBook Pros represent just a subset of Apple machines.

On the other hand, I’m sure that there are plenty of vendors out there willing to get access to Apple customers. I think these will be the ones that will see the immediate opportunity and jump in right away. As a result, this will create even more market pressure for the move to Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C.

Simply put, Apple’s all-in on Thunderbolt 3 will create a virtuous circle which will lead to faster adoption of this technology among the vendors and implicitly customers, who’ll benefit of faster, better, and simpler connectivity.

Side note: There are some other possible explanations for this move, but I’d really like these not to be true:

  1. old ports were removed because of the thinner and lighter direction
  2. old ports were removed because they’re leading to an asymmetric design

  1. at least the next few years 

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