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The Optical Drive is Next to Go

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.