TechCrunch’s MG Siegler is of the opinion that “yes, Apple killed the CD today”. The new Macbook Air comes without a CD drive, and the “recovery drive” that ships with it is a USB thumb drive rather than a compact or digital versatile disc.
This makes a lot of sense. CDs were replaced by DVDs because they offered a lot more storage. But flash memory cards, such as the one Apple includes with the Air, are already blowing DVDs out of the water when it comes to storage. They may still be more expensive to produce, but Apple has clearly figured out a way to make it work. I suspect we may see more drives like this one (which use much less plastic than typical USB flash drives — and appear to even use less plastic than optical discs).
He points out that the other half of the equation is the new Mac App Store, which is going to allow applications to be installed with a single click without requiring messing around with disc media. (What he doesn’t mention is that this is only the latest move toward PC app stores; there have already been online computer app stores going for quite some time now. Valve’s Steam digital distribution system just passed 30 million users, and it recently even made the jump to the Mac itself.)
But Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb is considerably more skeptical. Her thesis is that optical media in computers might be going away, but Blu-Ray is still alive and well, and sales were expected to improve in 2010. Among other statistics she cites, 17% of US households now have a Blu-Ray player, and Blu-Ray owning households rent more Blu-Ray discs than DVD households rent DVD discs.
Of course, Netflix just announced it may offer a no-disc, streaming-only rental package sometime soon. So who knows how long Blu-Ray has left?
I suspect all this uproar over whether books, newspapers, discs, etc. stems from people who have a tendency to see things in black and white. Something is either alive or dead, it’s either de rigeur or passé. But there’s actually a spectrum of activity, and old media tend to hang on for quite a while even so. (How many people still have black and white TV sets?)
Even as software and movies might move to digital distribution, there are still plenty of places for DVDs and even CDs to be useful, in situations where speed of transmission isn’t important but quantity is. As Andrew S. Tanenbaum said in 1996, “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.”
A CDROM full of Baen e-books bound into a hardcover book will continue to be useful for quite some time, given that there’s a huge install base of CD and DVD-ROM drives already. And flash drives simply aren’t cheap enough yet to substitute.