The impending death of optical media


I find it rather quirky that downloaded videos continue to clock in at convenient CD-sized chunks: 175 MB for a half-hour show, 350 MB for a full-hour show, and 700 MB for a two-hour movie. Nowadays these sizes are mostly just a relic, but there used to be an actual reason for these specific file sizes: people were burning the files to CDs, and they had to fit. I know that was a big concern for me. Each CD could thus fit one movie (or half of one, depending on length and/or quality), two full-hour shows, or four half-hour shows. Back when hard drive space was a lot more expensive than it is now, it was actually cheaper to use a bunch of CDs. It was even worth the inconvenience of putting up with all of the messiness that using CDs entailed. I remember having a constantly maxed-out 768 Kbps ADSL broadband connection and a 40 GB hard drive; you can calculate out how much CD burning I was doing. I still have many hundreds of burned CDs up in my old bedroom, untouched after so many years.

Nowadays, a good do-everything DVD burner is under $30, and blank DVD media is way cheaper than CD media on a per-megabyte basis, yet still those silly file sizes persist. I can’t see any reasoning to it besides inertia. Yet by the time DVDs became commonplace for storing data I had already stopped using optical media for those purposes and no longer cared about discretized file sizes; I was using hard drives for bulk storage. Sure, hard drives were still a bit more expensive on a per megabyte basis, but not having to put up with all of the inconvenience of burning data to DVDs, storing them, and then rooting through them later on to find something made it worth it. But now there’s no excuse for optical media. A 500 GB hard drive is under $100, so you spend less than $1 perDVD’s worth of storage. And the hard drive space can be used over effectively an infinite number of times, while the DVD is limited to one usage. Optical media just doesn’t make sense anymore.

I realized this a week ago when I put together a parts list for a new computer and plum forgot the DVD drive. I remembered all of the essential components, but the DVD drive didn’t even cross my mind. And it’s no wonder. Thinking back in the past several months, I can only think of one instance in which I used my DVD drive. That was to install the drivers for a USB data cable I bought for my Yaesu FT-7800R amateur radio transceiver. A week later, things went wrong, and I had to reinstall the driver, only I had already lost the driver CD. No biggie; I located the drivers online in less than a minute. So the one use of my optical drive in recent memory wasn’t even necessary.

On floppies and flash drives

Optical media is quickly going the way of the floppy disk. Its niche is rapidly disappearing. If these forecasts of the imminent death of optical media seem outlandish to you, recall how, years back, Apple announced the first iMac, which did not include a floppy disk drive. I and many others were taken aback. But within a year, it was pretty obvious that it had been the right decision. And now, nobody uses floppy disks. I haven’t used one in the better part of a decade. Optical media is heading the same direction.

USB flash drives now fill the rest of the niche that optical media had carved out for itself: data transferral. Flash drives are available in capacities larger than DVDs and are much less of a hassle to use (drag-and-drop a file to the drive instead of having to open up a burning program, praying all the while to not get a buffer underrun error). And data can be written to flash drives tens of thousands of times, versus once for optical media. Flash drives are thus still useful for those rare (for me) occasions when you need to transport files around in the absence of network access.

Blu-ray buggers up my prediction

The only fly in the ointment of my predictions of the death of optical media, and I will grant that it is a mutant-sized fly, is the big corporations. Most games still aren’t available for digital download, although all of the recent ones I’ve purchased were. Nearly all movies aren’t available for download and must be purchased on DVD, or God forbid, Blu-ray (which wouldn’t be fun to download anyway, at least not at current Internet connection speeds). Music is pretty much the only type of media that has made the jump to a completely digital distribution system. You can still get music on CDs if you prefer it that way, but you aren’t forced to like you are with many movies or games.

Out of all of the optical media currently in existence, I really only see a future for Blu-ray. CDs are pretty much expired in my opinion, and DVDs will follow soon after. Once movies are no longer available on DVD, there won’t be much of an excuse left for them. All of their other uses are easily replaced by Internet distribution (for purchased and pirated content), USB flash drives (for transferral of data), and hard drives (for bulk storage). Blu-ray is a unique case because 50 GB is still quite a lot to download over the Internet, but as broadband Internet connections get better, there will be less and less of a use for Blu-ray. Heck, I can download a Blu-ray disc image in 7 hours on my Internet connection at max speed, though I will grant that most people don’t have FIOS yet.

Final thoughts

Just remember how quickly floppy drives disappeared, going from omnipresent to vanished within the course of a few years. The same is currently happening to CDs, and will start happening to DVDs soon. Media distribution will continue to shift to Blu-ray, while flash drives of rapidly expanding capacities will completely take over all of the previous non-distribution uses for CDs and DVDs. In the end, the Internet will take over all other methods, and we will look back on these quaint days of having to move data around on physical devices and laugh.

Some day soon, schoolchildren will be just as bemused at the concept of information being physically carried around as I was when I first learned about room-sized computers using vacuum tubes, of all things. Cherish your optical media while you still have it, because eventually all they will be used for is novelty beer coasters, by nostalgic nerds.

One Response to “The impending death of optical media”

  1. Matt Ray Says:

    I am absolutely with you on this. After I wrote my blog today (http://mattsnerdwerd.blogspot.com/2010/02/optical-media-i-hear-your-mother.html), I did a quick search for this very topic and found this. Like you, I have been calling for the death of optical media for some time and was extremely disappointed to see yet another incarnation come out this late in the game. Viva la resistance, my friend.