- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

The compact disc, the computer age’s last nod to the notion of an archive that you can hold in your hand, seems to be spinning toward oblivion.

The debut of Apple’s MacBook Air, which has no disk drive, could mark the beginning of the end for the CD and usher in an era when all is online.

“Customers don’t need internal disk drives; they just think they do,” said Leander Kahney, author of the upcoming book “Inside Steve’s Brain.”

From Apple’s release of the original IMac in 1998, it began to dawn on the computer industry that the traditional floppy disk was on a death march.

Fast forward a decade to the debut of the MacBook Air, the laptop that Apple calls “the world’s thinnest,” and the first thing some consumers notice is the missing disk drive.

“The MacBook Air is exactly analogous to the original IMac,” Mr. Kahney said. “There were howls of outrage from customers, and some pundits said the absence of a floppy drive would doom the IMac.” Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs was even uncertain about the move, said an ex-Apple engineer with whom Mr. Kahney spoke. The IMac, however, went on to become the best-selling computer of all time Mr. Kahney said.

“I don’t think Apple is convincing anyone that they need to get rid of their optical drive,” said Ryan Block, the editor in chief of Engadget, a Web magazine featuring daily coverage of electronics. “There’s no substitution for it.”

Tom Krazit, author of the Apple blog One More Thing for CNET News, said that “the IMac was a little more daring at the time, since people were still using lots of disk drives and the Internet was not nearly as pervasive.” Mr. Block said that when Apple dropped the floppy drive from the IMac it was sending a message that computer users needed to “let go of the past.”

This time, Mr. Block said, the company is ditching the familiar in hopes of stretching profit margins and shrinking the size of the computer.

“It makes the machine much more portable,” Mr. Block said, pointing out that the Air was not meant to “signal the death of the optical drive.” The Air does, in Mr. Block’s opinion, signal the slow death of another kind of drive critical to computers: the hard disk.

Mr. Block said new computers are increasingly featuring the faster yet more expensive solid state drive (SSD). The new drives are based on flash memory, similar to the storage cards used by digital cameras.

“The line is really blurring between external and internal storage technology,” Mr. Block said, referring to the speed and small size of flash components.

“There may never be a full transition to SSDs as replacements for hard drives,” Mr. Kahney said. “Bigger is always better, and hard drives will always be bigger than SSDs. As SSDs get more capacity while coming down in price, so will traditional hard drives.”

Local storage always will be available in some form, Mr. Block said, despite the popular notion that computers 10 years from now will simply be stripped-down Web-based machines with everything stored online.

“There are some things that the Web just is not capable of doing,” he said.

The notion of “cloud computing” was attractive to Mr. Krazit.

“It’s not hard to imagine the world moving much more broadly toward Internet-delivered content, whether that’s through Wi-Fi, cellular modems like on the IPhone, or farther-out things like WiMax,” he said.

Mr. Krazit listed issues with broadband speeds, privacy concerns and remote data storage business models when predicting the future of day-to-day data usage.

“Apple did away with the floppy in 1998, but we’re still using physical media a decade later,” Mr. Krazit said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still using physical media of one form or another in another decade.”

Mr. Krazit said the short shelf life of disks is one reason consumers are losing interest.

“Optical disks are becoming obsolete or, at least, less necessary,” Mr. Kahney said. “More and more people are getting music online, especially teenagers. The same is true of movies. Why does the MacBook Air need a DVD drive, when customers can order movies from ITunes?” Mr. Kahney said an increasing number of computers will rely on an Internet connection for acquiring and playing music, movies and software.

The transition to a disk-independent society will take five to 10 years, Mr. Kahney said. He pointed to Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen, who recently announced a move within a decade from complex programs like Photoshop to an Internet platform.

Mr. Kahney said the world might never fully abandon the disk.

Mr. Block said early reports indicated the MacBook Air had been selling out despite Apple’s decision not to include an external disk drive in the box but instead charge $99 for one separately.

“Apple is not getting rid of the disk drive on the rest of its Macs any time soon,” Mr. Krazit said. “With this move, they can judge how people react to the lack of the disk drive and plan accordingly if it takes off as a trend.”

Mr. Block agreed. “They’re kind of shifting it out of view, but it’s still behind the curtain,” he said.

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