Endangered species? Maybe. Worth double-checking you can do online distribution, if you haven’t already? Definitely. Photo (CC-BY) Adam Jackson.

Memo to music software developers, artists and labels distributing music, and anyone else who uses optical drives: stop assuming they’ll always be there, because they won’t. Talking points:

  • Netbooks and tablets already lack optical drives. With more mobile devices, they’re unlikely to be alone.
  • Next up: laptops. Many laptops over the years have put optical drives in removable drive bays or shipped as external options to shed weight and bulk. HP Envy models recently came with external drives. And now, it’s a sure bet that Apple will drop optical drives on at least some MacBook Pros, as it did on the Air.
  • If you’re selling paid software, customers do sometimes lose your discs (or they’re on the road without access to them.)
  • If you’re sending music promos, the accessibility and manageability of digital may be essential. And you don’t want someone to fail to listen to a record just because they didn’t plug in their MacBook optical dongle.
  • At gigs (see lament below) be ready with some … I don’t know, QRCodes? (QRCodes on t-shirts!) Anıl Çamcı has a nice idea – print QRCodes on the physical CD, get the best of both worlds. (Suppose that works for vinyl, too; your laptop doesn’t have an LP slot.)
  • Yes, I also hope USB stick prices plummet. Until then…

I really love CDs and my occasional Netflix DVD and other optical distribution. But the writing’s on the wall here.

I don’t think that this will force Mac developers into Apple’s Store. Many pro software developers are unlikely to want to play along with all of Apple’s approval rules; some already have digital distribution. (It ain’t rocket science.) There are reasons they might consider that store, and this decision could help give Apple some momentum, but unlike on iOS, distribution through such a store is non-exclusive and likely to remain that way. That means that the presence of a particular drive does little to change the existing pros and cons of this and other stores. If you liked them before, you like them now; if not, you still don’t.

There’s a technology for loading content, code and music, tools and visuals onto a computer without shiny, plastic discs. It’s not called the Apple App Store. It’s called “The Internet.”

Nor do I think this means any major change – negative or positive – in regards to DRM.

In fact, expect an uptick in the use of USB sticks and other larger storage. That already had begun with massive sample libraries that number the hundreds of gigs. It’s a no-brainer for other large content, too. That’ll just have to square with another trend, however – solid state drives pulling average internal storage size lower and costs higher, at least in the immediate term.

One very big negative: physical handouts at shows. CDs are still far cheaper to reproduce (by an order of magnitude) than are USB sticks. Then again, maybe music lovers will keep that (now external) drive handy.

As a user, it’s worth not reading too much into this. My hope is that the internal drive bays remain, but are simply either available for upgrade or have a different drive in them. That means additional storage and customization configurations, one likely being optical drives if you want them. External drive options will also most certainly be available. And I hardly expect this to happen across the board all at once – particularly on the PC side, where there’s more model diversity.

Keeping optical drives around will remain a fantastic way to watch videos – particularly on the superior Blu-Ray format – and CDs aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Having online access to software you’ve purchased, though, is a no-brainer, and by no means requires an Apple-specific (or any other) store.

  • pierlu

    I only use the drive slot to rip cds I buy… so I guess I could do without, wven tho I'm so used to it that probably I cannot really understand what it will be when it's gone.

  • Andrew Stone

    Rumors have started that the next round of Macbook Pros are largely going to be in the Macbook Air form factor. The future is probably now.

  • I'd gladly trade my optical drive for reduced weight. And maybe a couple more USB ports for my Macbook Pro.

  • There are already kits out there (OWC has them) to remove the optical drives from older MBPs and replace it with a hard drive. I have been thinking of doing it to mine. Wish I had the cash to replace them with SSD – that would be sweet.

  • As Peter said, the main issue for us is that CDs are actually a nice format for selling your music at concerts. You can just make them on your own, and if you sell more than it's cheap and easy to get them printed. In the future we will have to sell download-coupons with individualized codes or something like that. Does someone already do that? Would this be easy to do on your own? Via bandcamp or something like this?

  • Not that I am against physical distribution, but I honestly cannot remember when I last used the ODD on my laptop (a widely shared sentiment, I presume). Knowing that Apple is even less likely to migrate to Blu-Ray, having the DVD-drive is becoming a bit like keeping a VGA port there (somewhat useful but sliding fast to obsolesce).

    I wonder if it's the interface that has to ship with the actual storage that keeps the USB sticks unfeasible for production in smaller (album-sized) capacities and lower prices. Then again handing out usb sticks or SD cards doesn't feel as hardcore as an after-show pile of home-brewed CDs. Matter of generation?

  • Peter Kirn

    @pepezabala: Yep, good question. The answer is definitely yes, you can – I just need to look into the precise details.

    But CDs are cheap enough, and still ubiquitous enough, that you could easily make the download coupon by printing it on / enclosing it with the CD. Problem solved. 😉

  • I think that the CD (and DVD) are pretty unlovable media — in my experience actually MORE delicate than vinyl, with a really drastic failure mode. They work until they don't and then they REALLY don't.

    What seems to be a trend is an inexorable move to The Cloud for storage. Unfortunately there's a huge technical infrastructure involved in maintaining 'as good as owning a physical object'* full-time access, not to mention the huge energy expenditure and manufacturing infrastructure required to keep it going.

    What we need is something that will be as durable, long lasting, and accessible over time as a hardbound book.  I don't see much progress in that direction.

    *owning the physical objects is no paradise either. I can search my iTunes library. Finding a particular record out of the 2000+ records around my house? Pretty difficult.  Same with CDs. I have wallets of CDs CDs in cases, stacks of them on CDR spindles and dozens if not hundreds under furniture… 45 years of collecting music will do that!

  • i don't buy cds anymore.
    either downloads or vinyl if i want the physical.
    but as music producer cds is the only realistic way for me to release physical copies at the moment.
    personally i would love to ditch my optical drive, make room for a bigger battery! i only use it for ripping cds and watching dvds. both i only ever do at home, therefore a external optical drive would not be a problem for me. and its not like they break the bank either!

  • Veridical Driver

    The zone between "owning physical object", and "storing music on the cloud", is "storing music on the local hard drive".

    I keep all my music locally on a network drive, I back it up to the 'cloud' on a bi-weekly basis… If both my house and the server on the other side of the continent both suffer a simultaneous critical failure, well I will be too busy battling warlords for can goods cause obviously something far worse than losing my music collection has just happened.

  • after some thought, I could live without the optical drive.

    One way to get around physical distribution at shows without using CDs is just print business card sized cards with your URL (or even better, that code thing where it starts the process of downloading something from the graphic when you scan it with your phone.

    That would be cool and save on $$$ too.

    What is that thing called again? Anyone remember?

  • tobamai

    The last time I used my optical drive was to watch a dvd someone gave me while I was on the road. I don't think this computer has ever tasted a CD that wasn't blank.

    I see two important points to selling CD's at gigs. First, people can buy something physical. Not only do other people see it in their hands and think maybe they want one too, but physically getting something for your money makes it more real. Second, they get the CD immediately, which is important because it adds some urgency and incentive to buy it now instead of saying "I'll just buy it on their website when I get home, if I buy it now I'm going to have to do the same thing with a coupon."

    So the problems I'm getting at with download coupons is that you don't get anything physical (okay, a piece of paper), people don't see other people getting it, and you don't get it immediately.

    Thumb drives address this, but they're prohibitively expensive.

    How 'bout a way to upload an album straight to someone's phone or ipod right then and there when they pay? That takes care of two out of three.

  • tad ghostal

    I don't think it's anything to worry about yet(defintely worth thinking about), movies and games are still mostly disk based, so even if people no longer have a dedicated CD player, they can still play a CD. After all, how long has the portable CD player been obsolete?

  • Andrew Garlock

    I've bought a few records at shows that also came with a download code. I've never listened to the actual vinyl, but for me one of the big reasons why I buy cd's at the store as opposed to itunes is that I get the physical artwork. If I didn't have access to a disk drive, I'd rather buy a medium sized beautiful paper thing with a code on it than a cd. I get the art and the digital media. I would be a happy consumer buying that.

  • I've swapped my MBP's optical drive with an SSD hard disk – and I don't miss it!! In fact I put my old 'superdrive' in an external USB enclosure, so providing I'm at home or have the drive with me, it makes no real difference (except that my laptop is SH*T fast now!)

  • Sounds to me like a great way to push DRM, and I think that's the real story here.

  • I have an external drive that I bought to burn albums for sale. I did not want to use the internal CD drive on my MBP as I heard stories about it being not so durable and very expensive to replace. I would not miss it personally. 

    Andrew Garlock speaks about the importance of artwork. Perhaps distributing music as 'art' is the way to go. Convert your music to an image and sell it with a 'player' software online. One could even turn sound data into an animation I suppose, an animation that would be converted back to music as it is viewed by the listener. Today, music making is visual. Most people record and mix music by looking at a screen. Most laptop musicians perform their music by looking at a screen. Why shouldn't the listeners (or watchers, perhaps?) listen to it on a screen?

  • Z

    Fucking greg, whats up your ass homie?
    I will shit myself the day you say anything positive on cmd.

  • Cloud storage of your own data is a really, really bad idea, for several reasons. And I'm sure there are a lot of indie musicians who sell physical CDs but are not set up with password-protected download sites and PayPal. Getting rid of the CD drive is, in my opinion, a way for giant corporations to make more money and squeeze the little guy off to the margins.

    There's also the impulse-buy factor. If you're at a club and the band is selling CDs, it's a one-step process. You whip out a $20 and they hand you a CD. Having them hand you a card with a URL that you have to access when you get home and then enter your credit card number (if you're not too tired to bother, or too preoccupied with encouraging your date's amorous proclivities) will produce much less in the way of revenue for the band.

  • Peter Kirn

    Right, but Jim, that's all the more reason for the little guy to be prepared and savvy so The Man doesn't screw him over … Again.

  • Velocipede

    10 years ago I had a PowerBook with a hot-swappable cd drive. I think I might have even had a zip drive to go into that bay! 
    Anyway, CDs and DVDs are far from dead. This is about returning to them to the periphery. Most of us do not need to carry an optical drive around, just as we don't need to carry a printer around.
    I'd much rather have an SSD as a second drive.

  • lala

    I havent bought physical data carriers since 8 years, exept for hd's ( and the dvds that came with my computers). That doesn`t mean i didn`t buy music or rented films or bought software. Im so glad that I dont have to drag all the boxes with cd's & vinyl anymore every time i move.
    In the end its just 0's & 1's, the future has started a longtime ago…

  • lightpeak

    @peter: it's not Apple's style to ship a computer with an empty slot. If they don't redesign the chassis to make the whole thing smaller, they'll rearrange the components and squeeze in an even bigger battery.

    Optical media is a horribly fragile medium. Its death can't come soon enough.

  • stk

    Seems there’s a definite divide, here in comments, between people who sell their music at shows and those who don’t.
    Audiences, in my anecdotal experience, like to buy physical things.

    I cautiously agree that, contrary to their current technophobia, The Man would ultimately love to push on to a wholly digital distro system, nicely tied up in a heavy DRM system, of course.

  • Random Chance

    Although I rarely use the optical drive on my MacBook (and have not used the optical drives on the PowerBooks that came before it) I still feel uneasy about having a laptop that does not support ripping a CD or installing some software from DVD. And what about products like the Waldorf Edition that rely on physical properties of the install DVD for its “copy protection” (in that case I’d rather call it “usage protection”)? I’m worried about all this because I plan on buying one of the new 15″ MacBook Pros once they are released and I can be reasonably sure there’s nothing fishy going on with the hardware (hint: Sandy Bridge).

  • Peter Kirn

    @Velocipede: Yeah, I *loved* that hot-swappable drive.

    I’m agreeing with others here that the optimal configuration is probably *external* CD (for ripping CDs and DVDs and installing software for the forseeable future), plus internal SSD boot + reasonably quick larger HDD for additional storage.

    Let’s just hope that second drive bay remains even if the optical doesn’t ship in there by default. I could believe it would; shipping it empty would still allow for such expansion but without increasing weight. We’ll see…

    In the meantime, you can certainly configure most PCs and current-generation MacBook and MacBook Pro this way.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Random Chance: Yeah, what I’m waiting to learn on Sandy Bridge is what Apple does with the GPU. Completely unnecessary to most people, but the lagging GPU quality has had an impact on performance for some live visual applications, 3D creation, etc… and, specifically, I’m not sure how the Intel integrated stuff in the Sandy Bridge generation stacks up. I usually rely on NVIDIA for consistent OpenGL support…

  • Peter Kirn

    @lightpeak: Yeah, meaning you’ll want to snap up a cheap two-bay model while you can. 😉 I think we could get an empty slot on some of the PCs, though.

    And yeah, optical media has had its … moments.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Charles: I think you should therefore give your fans music on a MacBook Air.

    Hey, they're guaranteed to be your fans, for sure…

  • Charles

    Optical media isn’t fragile, it’s brittle. Throw a CD down a flight of stairs and it’s probably fine. Do the same with a hard drive and you may not be so lucky. Vinyl is a little more forgiving of scratches – but it’s also softer and physically deteriorates every time you play it.

    Cheap solid-state memory cards seem like a good way to address the issue – you can give your audience an actual physical object after your show, they’re smaller, lighter, and more durable than CDs (and the same goes for readers vs optical drives), and they’re much cheaper than USB thumb drives. OTOH they don’t have the same market penetration or widespread compatibility of CDs/DVDs or USB.

  • This whole topic I find really interesting. Its such an interesting time for formats and how an artist distributes. I personally feel that USB is the way forward for now. Optical is ugly. Like everyone says they just rip and shelve. USB offers a petite, sexy, and arguably futuristic way to distribute. But to a point. Its a person-to-person format. Theres no point selling a USB package from a website – you can download! I think its an intimate way to stay connected and true to fans. In a way, being "in person" gets you the easter egg. It gets your fans to shows, to events. I think its important to limit some of these things from online in someway, to create a rarity and a specialness for personal experience. But further, whats missing is a manufacture for USB packaging. The Compactstick company who mainly deal in Psy Trance releases thus far offer a compelling case reminiscent of the jewel case. Likewise there is the Flash Pac which offers a more Blu Ray sized cased.

    In actual fact a lot of people use Facebook and share tunes, but not everyone is so savvy in downloading, let alone having the confidence to purchase mp3s from a lone artists rogue band website. 

    Even without packaging, simply slipping someone a thumb drive is damn cool imo. And, on an indie level, a thought Ive had is that USB can be a type of "pass on" media. You take the drive, share it, someone copies the files to their hard drive, and then loads it up with whatever they care to pass on to the next person.

  • Interesting thoughtsQRCodes made easy