The demise of the optical drive?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View
Last week, I read Dan Frake's intriguing column describing his re-evaluation of the MacBook Air. Essentially, after extended time using an Air while on vacation, Dan found that he did not miss the Air's lack of traditional features nearly as much as he had anticipated.

This reminded me of a question I have been thinking about ever since the MacBook Air was released: What is the future of the optical drive?

The Air's "missing" optical drive has often been subject to the same sort of criticism leveled against the original iMac's lack of a floppy disk drive. The iMac did have a built-in optical drive, but it was not a CD-writer, so there was no way to save data to a CD. The lack of a floppy disk drive was thus not a trivial matter. Yet, over the next few years, not only did the iMac survive sans a floppy drive, it thrived. At the same time, the floppy disk drive was dropped from all computers from all vendors, relegating it to the dustbin of computer history.

Could the same thing happen to the optical drive? Not right away. But I believe it will happen, and sooner than you might think.

For the moment, Apple offers two solutions to compensate for the Air's MIA optical drive:

The first is to buy an external optical drive, such as the one Apple now sells. This works fine for when you are at your base location, but does not fit well with the intended portability of the MacBook Air.

The second is for the Air to share a drive from another Mac via the new Remote Disc option. This works reasonably well, including for accessing an unbootable Air from an Install DVD -- as long as you have a second Mac available. But it is not a total substitute. For example, you can't use a shared drive to play movies. And it is no solution at all if you don't have a second Mac or are on the road where no Mac is available.

What about the third option: Doing without an optical drive at all? Before this is truly viable, we'll need two incremental advances in current technology:

    1. Much faster Internet speeds. In one sweep, a significant speed boost could eliminate as much as 90% of the need for an optical drive. When you can transfer gigabytes of data in the time it now takes to move megabytes, it will be practical to use the Web to do just about anything you now do with an optical drive: play music, watch movies, purchase software, or backup your drive. Even at today's slower speeds, we are already doing much of this. With much faster speeds (which are predicted for a not too distant future), it will not only be possible but preferable. I've already discussed this, as it relates to movies, in a previous blog entry.

    2. Very cheap flash and card media storage. I see matters moving in two directions at once here.

    First, to substitute for bootable discs, we'll shift to bootable flash drives. [Note: In an upcoming column, I'll have more to say about how these work.] The cost of these drives continues to drop -- often dramatically. You can now purchase a 512MB drive for as little as $.05! That's like free. A 4GB drive can be had for around $20. In a related "sign of the times," after Sony discovered a firmware problem with the model of their LCD television that I owned, they sent me (and all other owners) a flash drive to update the TV's firmware!

    Second, for greater storage capability, we can shift to media cards, just like the ones now used in digital cameras. A Mac could access these cards via a USB card reader, which is a much more portable accessory than an optical drive (these could even be built-in to a MacBook Air down the road). Amazon already sells 4GB SD cards for as little as $19. Before too long, prices should drop down to about the cost of a DVD (at least a dual-layer DVD), making the cards a true competitive alternative.

    For archival storage, media cards and flash drives may not be as durable as CDs and DVDs, but I believe they will be good enough that most users will be content to forgo an optical drive.


When all of these puzzle pieces fall into place, the optical drive will be ripe to join the floppy drive in the dustbin. This day is still at least a few years away, especially with the push to Blu-ray prolonging the life of optical discs. But the day is coming.

Comments

Michael

Hi, I have a MacBook Air and also have the matching optical drive. I received my MBA on February 1 - and have it fully loaded and operational. While it is not my primary computer, I still use it everyday and have a hoard of apps loaded on it. The surprise is that to date, I have not had the need to use the optical drive at all. Nada. Zip. For movies we always rip them anyway for iPods and AppleTV - so any I want to watch I have used a CF Card or wireless N to transfer. The N is really fast using a Airport Extreme and other N enabled cpus around the house. No complaints. No issues. Love it. My experience has convinced me more than ever that the cd/dvd format is on it’s way out sooner than most predict.
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Brett

A small clarification: You imply by omission that the Macbook Air’s remote disk option is limited to sharing the optical drive of another Mac when in fact, it works with Windows PCs too.

mark

Prior to my MBA, I had a Lenovo Thinkpad X60 for almost 3 years.  The X60 only has a optical drive in its optional base/dock which weighs almost as much as the X60 itself.  For the first year or so, I carried the base with me.  I soon realized that I only used it when someone gave me a CD, which was very very rare.  At work, everyone passed items via email or usb drives. So it was clear when the MBA was announced that it was perfect for me.

Nope

The optical drive is not going away anything soon. The MBA is NOT intended to be a primary computer, and as such, an ODD is not essential. Wanna watch an HD or DVD movie with all the special features? How about giving a homemade movie to a relative who doesn’t have a computer? How about installing a mutltigig program without a internet connection? All those things are can only be done COST EFFECTIVELY with optical drives. That’s not gonna change.

Michael

I recently visited my uncle, who enjoys digitizing videos and TV shows. He stores them on a hard drive, which he can view several different ways. He then burns them to DVD disks. I asked him why, he had no idea. He watches his TV on his phone with a slingbox. Optical media? Why? For myself, I sometimes buy a music CD so i can burn the entire collection to iTunes. From there, it goes to the family’s respective iPods, my iPhone, laptops, so on. The actual CD? Archived in the garage. I’m very much interested in eliminating ‘stuff’. Optical media is just ‘one more thing’, so to speak. Another physical object to clutter up my home, my life and demand my attention. As a Creative professional, I use flash drives to deliver files when I don’t use my web server or FTP. I stopped burning CD’s years back, and abandoned DVD’s a couple of years ago. My laptops rarely use their optical drives. Getting rid of ‘em for more battery or more memory would be just fine by me. Archivists have told me for quite some time CD’s and DVD’s degrade over time anyhow. Who needs a fugitive storage solution?

I s’pose there is a psychological aspect to the delivery of software or media… an actual, tactile, physically manifest representation of what one might be purchasing. Personally, I honestly don’t need three or four ‘bonus’ disks or elaborate packaging. Less is more for me. I truly don’t need more stuff to take care of. These days, when I come across a disk that has been mishandled, I simply toss it in the garbage.

Optical media at this point is nothing more than a security blanket. It won’t last past this decade. Flash media seems to be popular. I can imagine a myriad of alternatives. Faster networks schemes? Better encryption/compression schemes? Organic media storage? Nanotechnology?

The problem with anticipating future tech just at this moment is paradigms are changing exceedingly rapidly. Commercial forces, the 20th century drivers of innovation, are becoming severely fragmented. The human condition seems to be having a hard time keeping pace with the human experience. Because of that dynamic, floppy disks still pop up, optical media (realistically obsolete) is still viable commercially. Who truly needs optical media? Nobody. But the security of having a physical object in hand is still strongly desired.

Don’t have a Macbook Air. Don’t want one. Have an optical drive on all my computers. I use them only to convert the data to my current archiving scheme.

My computers these days are laptops. I’d love to have a few new options on my laptops, I want smaller, less obtrusive, more durable laptops. If sacrificing a DVD drive would give me more RAM or a longer battery life or a solar charger or a faster, larger external bootable flash drive or a powerfully fast satellite ‘net connection… then by all means, bring it on. How great would it be to only have to carry a small hard drive and plug my entire workflow into a kiosk or some sort of slave computer? Or hey, how ‘bout an external bluetooth drive i could exploit with my iPhone? hey, how ‘bout a personal pocket device that serves all of these purposes?

CD/DVD drives are just the smallest part of the changes ahead. We are officially in the computer revolution V 2.0. The Macbook Air is only the roughest sketch of what’s coming soon.

People need to stop thinking in terms of what’s established. What’s established may have been a huge source of revenue for some, but actually computing to date is nothing more than a basic proof of concept.

I have more on my pocket sized phone than any CD or DVD ever dreamed of. Why the hell can’t i just transfer the print file off my damned phone?

Truth is, I can do it right now. And heaven knows, it would certainly be a convenience and a service to me.

Gizmodo told me ‘bout a bluetooth phone mic designed to be installed in a person’s teeth. Soon enough, the entire phone will be installed in a person’s skull. (Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson).

Critics of the Macbook Air’s lack of optical drive are already obsolete, they simply don’t know it and have enough capital to make their collective voice matter.

They’ll be ground under by the nimble clever minds who can exploit new ways to use existing and nascent tech. It won’t take long.

swissfondue

I have a MBA and use a mobile external USB HD to move large files (i.e. DVD images) between my two Macs.

I also use a SD card in my digital camera which transforms into a usb card through folding. Like this I don’t need a card reader anymore.

john

I’m sitting here on my MacBook that is almost one year old. This article made me think: when did I last insert a disk in the drive? Must be a couple of months ago. This is my only computer so I’m not ready to do away with it but obviously I don’t use it all that often.

Mikuro

Don’t forget that there are also privacy and cost concerns with using the internet for archiving, and reliability problems with hard disks and flash drives.

You probably won’t find a good storage site that doesn’t have a monthly fee. That would make the cost of long-term storage online much higher than with DVDs, regardless of Internet speeds.

More importantly (to me, anyway), who can you trust with all your data? I would not be comfortable transferring my entire hard disk over the internet for permanent storage anywhere. Call me paranoid. It’s not a matter of speed, it’s a matter of privacy and security.

DVDs are the cheapest and safest archiving method. The cost per byte of hard disks and flash drives are still much higher, and even if they drop below DVDs (I guess it’s bound to happen eventually), I’d still prefer using read-only media like DVDs for archiving than read/write media. With read/write media like hard disks and flash drives, all your data is vulnerable to software failure. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. Bugs happen; there were even several Apple-supplied software updates in recent years that erased entire volumes. (I remember an iTunes update that erased volumes with certain naming patterns, and two or three incremental Panther updates that fried FireWire HDs using a certain chipset, for example.)

I can’t imagine not using optical drives anytime soon. However, not using INTERNAL optical drives is easy to imagine — I always wind up buying external drives before they become standard internally, and they’re always faster than Apple’s internal drives for years to come, too. So I rarely use my internal drive as it is.

pegasus

[quote comment=“454”]Don’t forget that there are also privacy and cost concerns with using the internet for archiving, and reliability problems with hard disks and flash drives.

You probably won’t find a good storage site that doesn’t have a monthly fee. That would make the cost of long-term storage online much higher than with DVDs, regardless of Internet speeds.

More importantly (to me, anyway), who can you trust with all your data? I would not be comfortable transferring my entire hard disk over the internet for permanent storage anywhere. Call me paranoid. It’s not a matter of speed, it’s a matter of privacy and security.

DVDs are the cheapest and safest archiving method. The cost per byte of hard disks and flash drives are still much higher, and even if they drop below DVDs (I guess it’s bound to happen eventually), I’d still prefer using read-only media like DVDs for archiving than read/write media. With read/write media like hard disks and flash drives, all your data is vulnerable to software failure. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. Bugs happen; there were even several Apple-supplied software updates in recent years that erased entire volumes. (I remember an iTunes update that erased volumes with certain naming patterns, and two or three incremental Panther updates that fried FireWire HDs using a certain chipset, for example.)

I can’t imagine not using optical drives anytime soon. However, not using INTERNAL optical drives is easy to imagine — I always wind up buying external drives before they become standard internally, and they’re always faster than Apple’s internal drives for years to come, too. So I rarely use my internal drive as it is.

What he said.

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