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Apple’s Thunderbolt

Apple Will Support Thunderbolt on Its Future ARM-Based Macs

When Intel announced Thunderbolt 4 yesterday, one of the questions was whether companies like AMD would be able to use the standard. Intel’s slide, copied below, implies that Intel VT-d technology is required to implement TB4, due to the need for “Intel VT-d-based direct memory access (DMA) protection.”

The implication of this, logically enough, is that Thunderbolt 4 is an Intel-only technology. That might be Intel’s plan for now, but it’s clearly not the plan long term. Apple has already stated it will continue to support Thunderbolt on future Mac systems, even after it has transitioned to its own silicon.

Intel-TB4-4

“Over a decade ago, Apple partnered with Intel to design and develop Thunderbolt, and today our customers enjoy the speed and flexibility it brings to every Mac. We remain committed to the future of Thunderbolt and will support it in Macs with Apple silicon,” an Apple spokesperson told The Verge.

Given that Apple is expected to continue refreshing its x86 products until ARM silicon is ready to ship, and that Intel’s upcoming Tiger Lake platform will feature TB4, we can logically assume that Apple will deploy Thunderbolt again, though it could theoretically choose to use TB3 instead.

There are a couple different ways Apple and Intel could handle this. It isn’t clear if there are any third-party Thunderbolt controllers under development, but Apple co-developed the technology with Intel to begin with, and could have secured licensing terms to design its own solution.

Alternately, it’s possible that Intel and Apple will sign some kind of technology license, allowing the DMA protection Intel enforces via VT-d to be implemented on a future Apple ARM chip or specialized security processor like the T2. This kind of agreement is fairly common when technology companies team up to work together, and there’s no reason Intel and Apple couldn’t come to an arrangement. Finally, Apple might just continue to purchase Thunderbolt controllers from Intel. This would be the simplest, most straightforward option.

Apple is making the right move, here. While the 2013-era Mac Pro may never have sold all that well, Apple built those systems explicitly around a promise that Thunderbolt would be a long-lived interface. Many of the storage arrays and eGPU boxes that use Thunderbolt are premium products, with long expected life spans. Dumping the standard within the next couple of years, without warning or replacement, would be a customer-hostile move at a time when Apple needs its customers to trust its own roadmap and long-term plans for the future. The decision to shift away from x86 is a momentous one, and it risks weakening the company’s market share if customers value Windows compatibility more than whatever benefits Apple builds into its upcoming ARM SoCs. The fewer peripherals people need to replace, the better.

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