The demise of the optical drive?

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.