The Optical Drive is Next to Go

November 16th, 2010

I read an article the other day quoting an executive from Lenovo claiming that far fewer and fewer customers were buying note-books with optical drives. The number continues to decrease year after year.

But Apple already figured that out when the MacBook Air was originally introduced.

At the time, the Air was roundly criticized because of the lack of the usual connection ports, such as Ethernet and FireWire, and the fact that there was no internal optical drive. How could you possibly exist without being able to run CDs and DVDs? Oh yes, you could get an external USB-based device, if that’s what you wanted, but I wonder how many Apple actually sold.

The question of the lack of Blu-ray on Macs has pretty much been answered already. It’ll never happen on a Mac. Steve Jobs has other priorities, and the “bag of hurt” licensing is evidently the least of it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am decidedly reluctant to acquire a computer without a DVD drive. But the fact of the matter is that I rarely use them. Sure, sometimes I make a CD copy of music I’ve downloaded from iTunes. I have a large spindle of optical media that I bought two or three years ago, but I’ve only burned a dozen discs since then. On a rare occasion, I’ve even installed software that way, although, with the exception of OS upgrade packages, most of what you need can be downloaded online. That’s how I got my copy of the last Adobe Creative Suite, though it took a while to retrieve the entire installer.

The optical drive on my MacBook Pro has only been used once or twice since I acquired it, and I can’t even say for certain if it even works anymore. Maybe I should test it again before the warranty runs out.

Indeed, when Apple talks up the MacBook Air as a next generation product, you only have to look at what’s there, and what isn’t, to see what a future MacBook Pro might be like.

I do not realistically expect that the number of USB ports will be reduced, and the professional users who have embraced this product won’t stand for the loss of FireWire or Ethernet. Intel’s forthcoming high-speed Light Peak might also be part of the picture. But all that’s trivial in the scheme of things. The key changes you’re apt to see are the total elimination of mechanical hard drives and optical devices. Gone, kaput, history.

It makes sense to want to ditch the traditional hard drive. On a note-book, they can be slow, and far more susceptible to damage. If you drop your note-book, and the display survives, even the best safety mechanisms might still leave you with a damaged drive, although we all know they can fail unexpectedly anyway even under normal use and service.

It really doesn’t matter if your drive is under warranty. They will only guarantee the mechanism, not what’s on it. No wonder drive recovery services continue to prosper, because most of you still don’t have a regular backup regimen.

However, all this doesn’t necessarily mean solid state storage will take over all but the professional markets overnight. Even though the MacBook Air is strictly SSD, the cost remains high for a reasonable amount of capacity, many times that of the equivalent amount of mechanical storage. It will take several years before pricing comes down to a sensible level for the 128GB to 512GB storage most of you would expect.

More to the point, if the suspected Apple dream of cloud-based computing comes to pass, maybe you won’t need to put all your stuff on a MacBook anyway. Your iTunes music and video libraries, often the largest file repositories on a typical Mac, will be stored somewhere in Apple’s new server farm. You’ll only need local copies for backup, when you don’t have Internet access, or maybe only enough data will be cached to keep you running until your online service is restored.

That situation, however, depends on nearly full-time broadband access. With perhaps a third of the population of the U.S. saddled with dial-up, whether they want it or not, that may not be a goal easily achieved. That’s one thing Apple seems to forget as system updates grow larger and larger.

When it comes to the optical drive, if you can depend on copying your stuff to the iPhone, iPod or iPad, or just streaming your music and movies to the device of your choice, one of the essential requirements for such a storage system will be eliminated. Assuming the Mac App Store takes over a large portion of the software market, aside from existing online resources, you won’t need an optical drive to load software. The rest can, as with the OS installation for the MacBook Air, be provided on a USB drive.

What confounds the skeptics is that Apple continues to look at what the tech world will be next year, five years from now, and even in the next decade. Companies that only comprehend this quarter and the next will never see that vision, but once Apple establishes a trend, you can expect the bottom feeders to quickly chase after them.

| Print This Article Print This Article

19 Responses to “The Optical Drive is Next to Go”

  1. dfs says:

    The most obvious problem with ditching the optical drive is that some big mfrs. like Microsoft use it to distribute password-protected software. Convincing the software industry to abandon this form of distribution might be a very tough sell.

    • gskiii says:

      @dfs, Ahh.. but that tis what the MacApp store will do, right?

      • dfs says:

        , hh.. but that tis what the MacApp store will do, wrong.

        The MacApp store will obviously be a boon to shareware authors and similar small fry, for whom piracy is not a significant threat But one of the various reasons why biggies such as MS and Adobe are going to steer clear of the Store is because they are going to be exceedingly reluctant to abandon security precaustions they feel are necessary for their self-protection,

    • Andrew says:

      @dfs, Not anymore. I just bought my copy of Microsoft Office 2011 as an electronic download from Microsoft’s store.

  2. rwahrens says:

    No, it won’t be a hard sell. Once enough machines start coming without CD/DVD drives, they will have no choice but to offer their software on USB drives or online. Same think happened with floppies.

    Once manufacturers have the opportuity to stop selling software on physical media, they will jump at the chance, because it will save them money.

    The media has nothing to do with password protected software. There are plenty of developers that sell software online that still use DRM protection, and lacking physical media does nothing to make it more complicated or harder.

    Just another step in the evolution of computers, and about time, too!

  3. DaveD says:

    I would like Apple to ditch the CD/DVD drive and go to a SSD/HDD combo. Reserve SSD for Mac OS X software and stable (like read-only) files, HDD for secondary storage and work use.

  4. Richard says:

    Good Lord! What an obnoxious “I’m a human” test. There are MUCH better ones that are out there. Get one!!!

    • @Richard, Suggestions are welcomed. I want to reduce comment spam, and our built-in protection tool is only partly successful.


      • Richard says:

        @Gene Steinberg,

        Gene, I can only say that other web sites have simpler systems, not three tiered affairs. I don’t maintain a web site, so my experience is only as a user. The ones I prefer have something simple. (There are other ones that are probably worse than the one you are presently using. Even when looking at them closely, I have to hit the “another one” button several times to get something that is a legible set of letters.)

        My personal favorite is one that asks “Are you a human?” with a variety of humorous choices. Unfortunately, I do not recall what web site it is that uses it.

        One thing that is particularly bad about the current setup is that it dumps the text you have typed if it does not like the answer without even providing a second chance. (The test was out of sight below the bottom of the screen and I clicked on the “Post Your Comment” button which was visible and above the new test. I should think that it belongs below the test, but that is just my observation as a matter of human factors.)

        If the software you are using allows you to reduce the test to a single line, I would much prefer that.


        • @Richard, I’ve tried a couple of WordPress plugins, and they either don’t work, or throw up extra interference for those posting comments.

          Right how, I’ve got them all disabled, except for the standard Akismet protection. I suppose we’ll see how it goes.


        • Richard says:


          Hmmm, interesting. I just posted the above comment without running into the test again. Is there an “I’m a human” cookie put on my browser after passing the test the first time or did you disable the test?

          What I was going to comment in the first place is that I expect laptops to lead the way in dropping optical drives. What with people pulling the optical drives to install an SSD or rotating drive as a second drive the manufacturers, not just Apple, can not be missing the trend. If you want an optical drive, simply have an external one that you use as needed…. The SSD as a boot drive offers a lot of benefits, not just the speed increase. When Apple gets around to redesigning the MacBook Pros there will be even more space for the battery which could turn them into an all day machine without a recharge as well as allowing some size reduction in the overall footprint and a weight savings to boot. The overall weight savings would be a boon to aching backs everywhere.


  5. Chris says:

    But my optical drive already went.

    I recently installed an SSD boot drive in my Mac Pro at work and the increase in performance is just incredible. So much so that it became painful to use my 13″ Macbook Pro without an SSD. I hardly ever use my optical drive so I replaced it with a 60GB SSD boot drive and kept the existing 500GB hard drive for data. The Superdrive went into a nice, very small USB enclosure I found online. Given how infrequently I’ve used my Macbook’s optical drive I doubt I’ll miss it and it’s small enough that I can keep it in my backpack if I ever need it.

    Here’s a link to the hard drive adapter and USB optical drive enclosure I used:

Leave Your Comment