Apple's killing the optical disk format, bit by bit—just as we suspected. When the computer maker refreshed its computer offerings this morning it hammered another solid nail into the DVD's coffin. Other computer and content companies are burying the format too.
The latest Mac Mini is as smooth and shiny as can be, with an almost uninterrupted surface. The slot for a DVD, CD, playing-and-burning Superdrive is gone, and the Minis sport boosted internal hard drives instead. Apple has stopped selling boxed copies of several software titles including iLife '11, it was reported today, and is re-routing buyers to the Mac App Store instead. The hot-selling MacBook Air, which has no disc drive, is now a consumer-level flagship machine. Only the bigger iMac all-in-one, the MacBook Pro range and the Mac Pro desktop workhorse still support internal optical disk drives.
It all makes sense, from a portable computing point of view. DVD drives are bulky, eat up power when running, and generate heat. They take up space inside the slender frame of a laptop that's probably better served with more disk space, or a bigger battery. And don't forget they offered a large point of ingress for dust and liquids in an era when all the ports on laptops are slowly being sealed up (no interchangeable battery flap, few peripheral connections—in favor of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi—and even a magnetic power connector that's "sealed"). Other big computer firms, such as Asus and HP, having seen the runaway sales of the Air, are following with near-clones of the Air that also lack an optical drive.
Consumeres aren't using DVDs so much any more, and media companies are depending on those sales less and less. Downloads and streaming movie options from market leaders like Netflix and Apple itself are growing in popularity. The CD has all but been replaced by digital formats already. Remember that Apple's the biggest music vendor in the U.S.—and the new wave of streaming music via services like Rdio and Spotify is already challenging the iTunes model. Even burnable DVDs are on the way out, with cheap ubiquitous flash drives coming in ever larger sizes (Apple's success with flash storage in iPods and iPhones has sped this change).
And let's not forget that Sony, when it gave out free games to PS3 users as an apology for the extended hack-related outage of its PSN, made them available as over-the-air downloads...proving it can do this on an industrial scale, and with no need for Blu-ray discs, even for its iconic Little Big Planet title.
There are still going to be plenty of complaints about Apple's decision, particularly when it comes to people with ingrained DVD and CD habits. (They can always buy an external drive as a peripheral.) But Apple's trying to push consumers into the future once again. It's a habit that's been long practiced by the company. It was one of the first computer makers to ditch the floppy disk. Their newest OS X Lion is being released as a code-only upgrade, over the air (and later as a more expensive version on a special USB stick).
The success of the MacBook Air, with no spinning storage disks of any kind, will surely spread to the iMacs and Pros once mass-storage technology gets cheaper. And perhaps Apple will maneuver the market here too: If iCloud's cloud-storage system works, and gets enhanced over time, then perhaps we won't need 1GB hard drives in our super-sized laptops. Cloud services from Amazon and Google underline this notion, particularly when you think about Google Docs.
If you extend Apple's product evolution into the near future, you can almost feel what it's trying to do: bring us computer products from sci-fi. A monolithic touchscreen phone that's basically a computer in your pocket. A flat tablet PC with big screen for movies and data. A portable computer that's got long battery life, snaps on the moment you open its lid, and is rugged enough you can toss it on your bed without worrying about the drives. All of this with always-on wireless connection, touch and sensor-based controls, and file storage on the "grid."
And where Apple goes, Windows, Google and others follow behind, so much could change very swiftly—shunting the DVD into history. Think about it: Did anyone ever slot a disk into HAL 9000, or a computer in Star Trek?
[Image: Flickr user Adam Foster]