October 25, 2010, 7:20 PM — Do we really need CD/DVD/Blu-ray drives in our computers anymore? That was certainly one of the questions posed by Apple and the new MacBook Air models. The MacBook Air always shipped sans optical drive (as does Apple's Mac mini server). Most netbooks do as well. But most ultra-portable notebooks also offer some way to access an optical drive – typically a USB-based add-on or over a network to a more traditional PC or Mac that has such a drive. The big difference about the new MacBook Air is that, while it ships with an install/restore disk, that install/restore disk is a bootable flash drive.
This poses a serious question to the tech world (PC and Mac) – do we really need optical drives of any sort?
It almost seems like a question that answers itself. We can download software and install without the need to purchase a box containing a CD/DVD that we may never use after the installation. In the age of portable music players like the iPod and Zune, we don't really need CDs – car stereos were the last real holdout for CDs and today most have aux in ports, can accept USB flash drives, or offer iPod integration. We're entering the age of streaming media for our computers and Internet direct to our TVs (even Netflix acknowledges that it’s a streaming media company at this point).
Aside from the emergency restore and diagnostic tools (some of which are migrating to flash and external hard drives) are there really reasons that computers need to be able to read optical media?
As deprecated as CDs and DVDs have become, the answer may be yes (at least for the moment). TV networks and movie studios haven't given up the ghost quite yet – we can stream a lot of things from Netflix, but there's still a greater number of DVD/Blu-ray only titles than titles you can watch instantly. Likewise, there are some large software packages (the Adobe Creative Suite comes to mind) that are so bulky that downloading them, while possible, is a challenging prospect.
But the biggest reason that optical drives aren't going away may be their ability to burn our data to disk. For individuals, families, and small businesses, DVDs remain an affordable and relatively secure method for archiving anything from accounting records to third grade book reports.
Beyond data, DVDs remain a universal way to share almost anything. A business can distribute presentations, sales figures, and projections on DVDs to clients and investors and be assured that everyone will be able to see them. Likewise, YouTube and Facebook may be great ways to share home movies, but we all have family members like my 73 year old dad that can barely manage email. For them a DVD of the grandkids is going to be a lot more accessible (not to mention tangible).
So, yes we're moving past the days of optical media as the portable and durable solution, but just as the Sony Walkman lasted 30 years, I think CDs and DVDs will be around for a while longer.