Like many Mac users with MacBook Pro or MacBook Air notebooks, I’ve been waiting for a couple of years for Apple to update their Thunderbolt display to USB 3.0.  While looking at the options available for the new Mac Pro (which I jokingly refer to as the “Trash Pro”) this morning, I realized that Apple may not be going to perform that upgrade.  They might surprise me and update it to Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3, but it appears just as likely they will continue to sell this model without changes or eventually drop it altogether and cede the display market to third parties, which own most it anyway.

Over the years, Apple has been pairing down their display offerings and slowly moving their users to third party monitors.  What they have maintained has been differentiated by features and quality, not by price.  They have the corner on Thunderbolt-equipped displays and that has sustained some sales, but the appearance of cheaper Thunderbolt equipped docks is slowly eroding user motivation for spending the extra money. I’m waiting for the much delayed Sonnet Thunderbolt Expansion dock.  It’s more expansive than Apple’s Thunderbolt monitor with its USB 3, eSata, Firewire 800, gigabit Ethernet, and extra Thunderbolt ports. Additionally, you can order it with a DVD burner or a Blue Ray burner and a 1 to 4 TB internally mounted hard disk, all for less money.  I’d opt for a new Thunderbolt monitor over this if it were equipped with USB 3 ports; but without them, the Sonnet dock is the better buy.  However, as of this writing, that dock was supposed to have been released last summer and is still listed in a “pre-order” status; so it’s still a ghost product I won’t commit to until it actually shows up.

If you own a new iMac, you can daisy chain using its extra Thunderbolt port and it already comes with USB 3 ports.  If you have a Retina MacBook Pro, it has two Thunderbolt ports (Thunderbolt 2, now); so if you’re like me and have older Apple Cinema Displays using mini-display port, you can hook them up to your MacBook Pros and still have a Thunderbolt port to use.  The unlucky ones are those with MacBook Airs that have only one Thunderbolt port and want to use one of those older displays.  There’s no such thing as a Thunderbolt “splitter” so you have to find some kind of dock you can plug your display into that has pass-through Thunderbolt or buy Apple’s current USB 2 equipped Thunderbolt display.  You can’t use the Matrox dock at all and it only has USB 2 ports anyway and the Belkin dock won’t give you any Thunderbolt pass-through without also using Apple’s Thunderbolt monitor so it’s largely redundant (plus the Belkin’s docks USB 3 ports don’t work at full USB 3 spec speed). If one of those docks does meet your needs, great!  For me, though, those are reasons not to purchase them.  So, I’m kinda stuck waiting on the Sonnet device.  I can get most of what I need with a NewerTech miniStack Max running on USB 3; and if Sonnet doesn’t push its product out the door before too much longer, I may head in that other direction.  (I own both a Thunderbolt equipped MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro and I need something that can work with both of them.)

Now, consider that in the new Mac Pro, there are four USB 3 ports and six Thunderbolt ports.  The specs and pricing on the machine mean it is aimed squarely at the professional (and not the prosumer) market, and I suspect it is mainly aimed at video editors who are or soon will be editing 4 K videos.  There are enough Thunderbolt ports on this machine to allow it to be used by almost any kind of monitor in existence today.  For those who might be already using an Apple Thunderbolt monitor and any legacy equipment (USB 2 and Firewire 800), it will continue to meet their needs.  They still maintain those hook-ups and don’t sacrifice any extra machine ports to maintain them.   In fact, this is a more desirable approach than hooking up legacy USB 2 equipment via the machine’s USB 3 ports.  While that wouldn’t be hurt by a new Thunderbolt monitor with USB 3 ports, mostly new owners rather than upgraders will loose the cash to get them. In other words, I’m not sure the current professional community cares much whether Apple updates the monitor or not.  They’re going to be moving to 4K or can be happy using HDMI anyway.

A Thunderbolt monitor with Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3 that would leave the Firewire 800 port in would match it up with Apple’s newest machines and could position the rest of us to upgrade our “before-2013” notebooks without extra cash outlays, providing more incentive to buy.  From that perspective, it would be a good marketing move.  But is it a market that Apple wants to protect for some time longer?  Eventually, despite Apple’s current pronouncements (and I actually think Apple’s slower approach is more correct than Microsoft’s), we will see convergence of tablets and mobile devices with desktop computing at the consumer level and possibly the prosumer level. It’s probably a decade off, but it has begun with the inclusion of 64 bit processors in the iPhone and the iPad. My MacBook Air is still more powerful and portable than an iPad with a keyboard, but not by much.

Some Apple products have also shown through the years they doesn’t always fulfill their promise, and it is usually through the paucity of upgrades available after the initial product is bought.   The promise of the Mac Pro has been its expandability, but its video card upgrades have always been few and too far between, leaving its owners in the dust of Windows PC users.  Their data buses were stuck at SATA II for too long, with the only way out being a whole new machine that took seven years to release or expensive PCIe card additions.  It’s hard to say but not unthinkable that Apple will likely leave its notebook users behind in the same fashion by not upgrading the Thunderbolt monitor or by making its price point so high that its value simply sinks.  Let’s hope they show more loyalty and insight than that.