Why Doesn’t Steve Jobs Care About USB 3.0?

Intel’s 2012 CPUs will have baked-in support for super-speed USB 3.0, the tech that Steve Jobs just noted isn’t taking off due to…lack of Intel support. What’s going on?



Intel just revealed that its 2012 CPUs will include baked-in support for super-speed USB 3.0–the very same technology that Steve Jobs recently said isn’t taking off due to…lack of Intel support. What’s going on?

Intel’s processor development trail leads to Chief River

Intel just revealed its plans for the Chief River suite of CPUs, 22 nanometer chips based on the upcoming Ivy Bridge architecture and designed to succeed the Huron River notebook CPUs. They’re slated for mid-to-late 2011 mass production, with the first notebooks incorporating them likely due in early 2012.

But Chief River includes one thing Intel has deliberately shied away from until now: Native USB 3.0 support. This is the super-speedy, fiber optic-boosted successor to the USB 2.0 ports that probably litter the sides and back of the computer you’re reading this on right now. It’s backwards-compatible, multiple times faster than USB 2.0, and is pretty future-focused–external hard drives that support the protocol for speedier data transfers are already on sale. But Intel has deliberately avoided dedicated USB 3.0 support, preferring to promote its own similar LightPeak technology. Which makes Chief River a key piece of news for notebook manufacturers keen to simplify and optimize their upcoming machine designs.

Steve Jobs on USB 3.0

Apple is no stranger to proprietary connectors–the once-popular FireWire standard had numerous benefits over USB (including the ability to daisy-chain devices) even while it never saw the same popularity. Apple is also pushing the miniDisplayPort standard for screen-to-computer connections with all its latest Macs. But the recent slew of Mac portables typically have fewer ports than you’ll find on Windows notebooks, and the first-gen MacBook Air only had a single one. Apple’s voice is increasingly important in the industry, and with this move Apple is essentially saying that reliance on USB is a bad thing.


Now it appears that Steve Jobs has delivered his opinion on USB tech. In response to a direct email question from a consumer on the matter, Jobs is reported to have replied over the weekend with the following characteristically staccato response:

“We don’t see USB 3 taking off at this time. No support from Intel for example.”

Interesting hey? Apple’s CEO is revealing a plan to avoid USB 3.0 in Macs for the immediate future, due to Intel’s avoidance of the tech. True, Intel’s news about Chief River does point to a 2012 timeframe, during which time we can probably expect at least one new generation of Macs to have come and gone–leaving time for 2012’s MacBooks to possibly embrace USB 3.0. So “at this time” is a pertinent phrase by Steve. But given the timing of the news, can we detect a little love lost between Apple and its main computer CPU supplier?

Processor agnosticism

Yes, we can. Look at the iPhone 4, the iPad and the Apple TV: As we’ve noted before, their secret sauce is the ARM-based A4 CPU thrumming away inside. It’s not Intel tech, it’s Apple’s own refinement of a standard design, and it frees up Apple from having to laboriously trek along Intel’s processor trail like every other manufacturer.

Then look at the new MacBook Airs. Wonders of device miniaturization, some folks say they’re defining a new future for portable computing. But they use old Intel CPUs, in some cases slower than the preceding generation’s chips. A problem? No, all the benchmarks suggest that the new Airs have a design so optimized that in real-use performance they can even rival the computing power of the bigger MacBook Pros. Apple’s essentially showing it can work with what seems non-optimal tech to achieve a powerful result.

And there’s another thing to think about here. Apple may not care about Intel at all in the future. It has a new OS due next year, and the Mac App Store is imminent. Some thinkers online are suggesting that the code strategies Apple is enforcing for its new Mac Apps and existing iOS apps is convergent: Developers may be able to throw a switch and compile for iOS or Macs, resulting in parallel but identical apps. And this gives Apple the ability to be agnostic about the actual CPU tech inside its future computers. It could use Intel chips, it could use AMD chips. It could go for CPUs with baked-in USB 3 support, choose a dedicated IO chip, or avoid USB 3 entirely–its stance on wireless tech and USB ports on current Macs is a hint here. In several years, it could even embrace the next-gen ARM CPUs that may sport 12 processor cores for on-desk supercomputer-sounding powers.


Is Apple about to radically twist its future away from the way other computer makers will do business?

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)