Mac Ditching the Disc, Should We Care?

Last week, Apple’s decision to ditch the classic CD/DVD drive in its new update to the Mac Mini caused many reviewers and bloggers feverishly pound their keyboards in distress. The ODD was in jeopardy. The physical was being ditched in favor of the digital. Is it possible that iMacs and Macbooks in the future would lose their constant circular companion? Probably. But it makes sense, and you should probably not be as worried as you are.

What About The Disc Man?!

Honestly the reason anyone is freaking out about this is decision is because it’s a huge shift that has been looming over our heads for years. Now Apple has decided, as it normally does, to drag its followers kicking and screaming into the next generation of content. The last time Apple did something to this magnitude was in 1998 when Apple killed off the floppy drive in their computers. It was a big deal for the time, but not as big a deal as today because it’s not just a shift in format. Back then all one had to do was move from floppy to cd. Sure it was painful and expensive. Whatever, we dealt. However, now we are moving from owning content that’s physical, to owning content that is theoretical. We can’t feel it, touch it, taste it (ugh), etc. We can consume it, but it exists in the theoretical domain of the hard disk drive (or even worse, that unknown mess of stuff we call the cloud). It is certainly scary because with a CD or DVD, we know it’s there. There is always a backup copy because it is a physical object we can stick in our computers.

There’s also something so satisfying with owning a disc copy. I know, I love my discs too. I refuse to pay for backup services that are cloud based, I keep my files backed up on a hard drive, I still use flash drives, I always buy DVD or CD versions of media rather than downloading. I understand. It feels somehow wrong to dole out our hard earned cash on something that isn’t immediate, or that you can unwrap, or that you can touch.

However, the reality is that there are many benefits to digital media. For one, it’s actually more secure, given that the company that provides it is reputable. The fact that (at least through Apple on iTunes) you can buy a song, download it, and then re-download it when your computer or hard drive dies is very reassuring and secure. Physical discs will deteriorate over time. You can lose them. And if you lose the disc or it breaks, and your digital copy is gone, there is no other backup. It is lost forever. I have done this many times and it always adds a little cement to how much more secure iTunes content (or Amazon or Google Music) is than a physical disc.

Programs…on disc? Huh?

I got to thinking when I read an Engadget editorialthat lamented the change pretty hard. When was the last time I actually used a disc? As I said, I still buy CDs for my music, but then I rip it into my computer and file the disc away, which is essentially the same as downloading. I play computer games, and so the last time I actually used a disc was a DVD that I inserted to install a game. However, the irony was that what it really did is open up steam, activate the game on steam for me, and then start the downloading process. The disc didn’t actually have the game content on it. As silly of a scenario as that is, it is a reality in a time when game publishers are concerned about DRM, security, and also in a time when discounted disc-less games can be found on Steam.

Here’s another example. The Mac App store. Not only is all your content downloaded, but it is typically cheaper than buying a disc in a store. Most likely, the lack of a disc also means making shipping unnecessary, means making processing cheaper, and also means not having to send millions of discs all around the world, some of which may end up rotting on the shelf if the software never sells. That makes the software cheaper. It allows Steam to sell games cheaper and it allows Apple to sell software cheaper.

The same point applies to music. In a world where iCloud, Google Music, Amazon Cloud Music and Pandora exist, is there really a need to have CDs in your car? Even low-end car decks will have auxillary ports now. It is simply much more convenient to plug in a phone or mp3 player into your car radio and play your favorite songs than to pop in a cd.

The Interwebs Hate Me

That brings us to another point. With all this content going through the series of tubes we call the internet, that’s certainly going to put a strain on internet companies. Some companies are instituting stringent data caps for home internet, and some are throttling heavy data users. If you are on a mobile internet plan, well you’re pretty much screwed. Unfortunately, though, Apple does not control internet companies, nor their policies. The state of home broadband, especially in the US, is terrible, but it is easily remedied. This is proven simply in the fact that this broadband state is not the case all around the globe. The reason internet providers institute data throttling and data caps is primarily because they can and because they can gain a profit out of it. If there were more competition for internet providers, perhaps internet companies would actually spend the money to expand and upgrade their networks.

What Apple is doing with things like iCloud and disc-less computers is indeed what many complain will happen with this shift. It will push internet use higher than before. When internet providers get strained by the extra use, what do you think will happen? Will Comcast or AT&T fold first or Apple? Well that is to be seen but I applaud Apple for trying to push us slowly into the digital age. This is only a small step but it might be as significant as iPads and iPhones and iPods.

You Forgot About The Other Discs

And by the way, no you can’t currently download a 5-10GB Blue Ray movie very easily on the terrible broadband we have in the US. But guess what? You also can’t stick a Blue Ray disc in your current Mac Mini. Steve Jobs’ disinterest in blue ray is well documented and normally explained by saying “you can get HD on iTunes.” Obviously such a statement is a smack in the face of Blue Ray lovers. Thanks Steve, your 720p content sounds fantastic. The fact is though, 1080p content willcome to Macs. And also, you can still put your blue ray in your player and watch it on your amazingly beautiful 60 inch Plasma TV instead of your amazingly beautiful 27-inch iMac display or your (depressingly) non-1080p Macbook display. Steve is probably considering the fact that you can just hit one button on your remote and move from the Mac Mini to the Blue Ray Player. Blue Ray will never come to Macs. Will people care? Probably. Will they get over it? Yes.

You Forgot About My Discs

And what about home movies? Are they so last decade? Yeah Probably. Many still enjoy creating home movies on iMovie and then burning them to a DVD. Okay fine, but once again, technology is racing past the need for discs. The Apple ecosystem is amazingly capable and will become more capable in the future. First of all, for in the house there are things like AppleTV, AirPlay, Internet connected TVs and Blue Ray players. All of these can stream a movie from iMovie to your TV. Outside of the house there is still the same stuff, just transferred through an iPad, iPhone, or heck, that little external hard drive that sits around your house collecting dust.

But also soon there will be iCloud which will race your content all over the internet to wherever you want it to go.

How about non-Apple stuff? There is Facebook, Flicker, Google+, etc. There are various online services that allow you to publish your home movies and share them a lot easier and faster than burning a disc and shipping it or driving it around everywhere. For Windows users, the removal of the disc drive would make no sense. Apple is probably the only company that can get away with radical shifts like this.

Closing the Wall

The fact is, for Apple it’s all about control. Since iTunes came with the iPod, Apple has been trying to use cool gadgets to bring people over to the Mac ecosystem. I have personally seen many who have bought an iPhone or iPad and, while they would never consider it before, now consider getting an Apple computer for the ease of use and interoperability. They have seen the simplicity, convenience and security of a walled garden, and now want to stay inside forever. You cannot have a walled garden without walls.

The fact is that this shift is business as usual for Apple. The truth is, whether you like it or not, is that Apple has been forming and shaping their walled garden for decades, and only now are they giving you invitations with shiny gifts. Inside the garden it is beautiful (Apple’s products designed for aesthetics). Inside the garden it is safe (Apple controls the software environment, now more than ever). Inside the garden all the roads are well paved (Apple buys high quality hardware and makes the software to be easy to use). However, there are obviously walls to a garden. Easy does not necessarily mean advanced. If you don’t like Apple’s hardware, then you cannot (legally anyway) choose otherwise. On iPods, iPhones, and iPads you can only get apps from Apple (unless you jailbreak). For years Apple has been allowing you to rip your CDs that you bought elsewhere and the DVDs that you bought elsewhere and the software that you bought elsewhere on your Apple computers. Well, obviously that time is passing. The garden is closing a little more.

The approach of the walled garden is insulting to many people but reassuring to others. The level of insult vs. reassurance normally corresponds to the spectrum people lie on the PC vs. Mac debate. Many will enjoy the reassurance of a closed ecosystem in which content is secured, filtered, regulated and distributed equally. Many will be insulted by the declaration that Apple knows better than you. However insulting it is, it is surprising how often it is true.

So….

So in other words, the shift makes sense and people probably shouldn’t be worried as much as they are. For most users, if Apple completely switched to disc-less computers, the main change people would notice is that software, music, and movies would be cheaper, would be backed up into “the cloud” and easily steamed to whatever format you wanted. Some would mutter angrily at inability to burn something to a disc, but also then realize they can share it wirelessly or put it on another storage medium.

Once again, this is Apple we are talking about. This is Steve Jobs looking at something and telling us, “You don’t need this anymore, why are you paying for it?” We can either agree or disagree with him, but I think the answer to that argument will depend on what platform you favor.

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