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Farewell, My Little Plastic Discs

Farewell, My Little Plastic Discs

The new Mac mini lacks an optical drive, as does the MacBook Air, which now holds the role of Apple's entry-level MacBook. Is the DVD drive headed the way of the 3.5-inch floppy drive? With all the content available online, from movies to software to music, most consumers probably won't miss the death of the plastic platter ... that is, unless ISPs begin changing the ways they do business.

I'm not sure that we can say Apple is the barometer for the consumer tech industry, but it's been either eerily prescient or a powerful catalyst in the demise of certain technological habits.

Apple ditched the old 3.5-inch floppy drive back in the '90s and followed up by creating the iPod, which brought attention to digital MP3 players and then dominated the mobile music space, even changing how people buy and consume songs. I can barely remember Sony WalkMan disc players now, and I can't remember the last time I actually bought a CD that I had to fight to unwrap.

And then there's the touchscreen iPhone. Remember having physical keyboards with buttons on smartphones? Sure, they still exist, but they are surprisingly marginalized and frequently absent from lists of top-of-the-line smartphones coming from the major manufacturers.

The latest bit of Apple game-changing action: removing the optical disc from the Mac mini. So why is this a big deal? After all, the previously underpowered Mac mini hasn't been a particularly amazing seller for Apple, at least not compared to the MacBook Air, MacBook and crazily popular iPad line. Why would such a simple move in a relatively unassuming little box mean anything at all?

A Tipping Point

On the surface, it seems like a clear signal from Apple that it doesn't really believe consumers need optical disc drives any longer. Want? Maybe. Need? Not so much.

Sure, Apple's iCloud storage facilities in the sky aren't here yet, but they aren't exactly a replacement for an optical drive, are they? So what's the drive for, anyway?

Loading software? With the Mac OS X App Store, it's not needed. Downloading and instantly installing software for my Mac ... I've got to say, I like that a lot.

Creating backups? I can back up a lot of documents on a basic compact disc, and even more on a DVD disc, but for many key backups, those discs are useless. My iPhoto library alone would take a stack of burnable DVDs for a backup.

An external hard drive is a faster, better solution. Speaking of photos, what about burning them to a disc and then heading over to a self-serve photo-printing kiosk in major retail stores? You can email them in advance and then simply pick up your photos. Or print them yourself at home.

Movies! Blu-ray!

Look, DVDs are still popular with millions of people, but for those who dance around the edge of new technology, they are fading fast. I'm a Netflix subscriber, but I've got to say, I have a love-hate relationship with DVDs, and it's mostly hate. I hate feeding the DVD player in the living room. I hate waiting for the mechanical action to do its in-and-out and spin thing, and I'm particularly annoyed by waiting for DVD menus to load. I just want the movie, thank you very much, not a bunch of fancy DVD menu action. And I still can't shove a DVD into my iPhone or iPad and go mobile without ripping the DVD, which, again, is a hassle.

As for Blu-ray, for me the expense isn't worth the bother to get the extra quality, which doesn't matter if I want to watch something on my iPad anyway. Besides, it seems that Apple hasn't been particularly interested in supporting Blu-ray, well, ever, and shipping a Mac mini without any optical drive just pounds a nail into the Blu-ray-on-a-Mac hope altogether. Sure, I would have liked the idea of getting a Mac mini to use as a Home Theater PC (HTPC) for my living room, but with a $99 Apple TV available, I just can't seem to find enough desire to shell out for a whole HTPC at all. If I want to surf the Web or email from my couch, the iPad is just a superior option altogether.

If you haven't noticed, I'm trying hard here to find a reason why Apple is wrong ... or even a reason to care. In fact, I'm considering buying a Mac mini to replace my aging MacBook, and the lack of an optical disc drive barely comes into play at all. Would I miss having an optical drive enough to shell out US$79 for the MacBook Air SuperDrive, which connects with a simple short USB cable? Probably not. And burning music CDs for my vehicle? It's been months since I've bothered. I'm far more likely to use my old iPod nano or even iPhone in my pickup to listen to the music I've purchased.

Meanwhile, there are rumors that the hot-selling MacBook Air, which has never had an optical drive at all, might get a large sibling with a 15-inch display. Either way, the MacBook Air has now effectively replaced the low-end white MacBook, which has been discontinued for sale to everyday consumers. MacBook Pros, iMacs and the Mac Pro are now the only Macs that have optical drives. For how long?

Any Fallout?

There is one thing that concerns me about the seemingly inevitable death of the optical disc drive, and that's our Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Right now, Netflix's unlimited instant streaming service is so popular that the company is responsible for nearly a third of all peak-period downstream Internet traffic. If the DVD is fading in favor of Netflix, as well as iTunes purchases and rentals, might all this Internet traffic help push ISPs to really ditch their unlimited download service plans in favor of more tiered pricing? If my ISP right now started limiting my ability to download whatever I want when I want it, that would make DVDs more valuable for my movie-watching habit. And if I were a new Mac mini owner, that would be one less spot I could watch a movie from.

Of course, it seems to me the death of optical drives might help increase the ubiquity of USB-based thumb drives and lower the cost even more, making it possible to actually sell content on them in a retail form. Still, I think we're a ways away from a RedBox or Netflix or BlockBuster shipping out content on USB thumb drives.

As far as retail sales go, it's only a matter of time before the PC world becomes dominated by its own online application stores, removing yet another perceived need for optical drives in the larger PC world.

And the thing is, in another year, I don't think most consumers will miss optical drives at all.


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