The launch of a desktop Mac without an optical drive yesterday (the new Mac mini) put me in mind of the launch of the original iMac in the late 1990s and the paradigm shift in computing which that machine signaled. Back then, Apple were the first to identify that the floppy disk was obsolete; slow, unreliable and lacking the capacity needed for contemporary computing. The iMac was designed from the outset for networked environments and the internet. The rhetorical question Apple asked was 'why would you need a floppy drive if you have email?'.

So here we are in 2011 with the strongest signal to date that optical media is becoming (in computing terms at least) moribund (if not quite dead). Software and data are distributed via networks or the cloud and on those increasingly rare occasions where you have no network connection, portable flash storage is cheap and ubiquitous. There's a simple test if you're worried about the lack of an optical drive - ask yourself if you can remember the last time you burned a data disk?

But there's the rub - if you downloaded OSX Lion last night and followed the advice of lots of tech websites then the last time you burned a data disk may well have been yesterday (see, for example, this article on Lifehacker). Apple distributed the new version of their brilliant OS over the air via the Mac App Store with no way to keep a physical copy as insurance against technical failure. The good and the great of tech journalism all recommended that you make a bootable copy of the installer on DVD or flash drive to give you just that insurance.

And what about those of us still wedded to having physical copies of our media (the 'retromaniacs' to paraphrase Simon Reynolds)? Where does this leave us? I know all about this one - I'm the guy who still buys CDs and boxed-set reissues, then rips them to iTunes so I can take them on the road. I'm the fringe case who likes having CDs for high-quality audio in the house and an iPod Classic so I can take a huge chunk of my music with me wherever I am. (Incidentally, we're the people who want the big capacity iPod to stay in the product line as the rest of the current range has nowhere near enough storage for us). For the retromaniacs like me (and, I presume, for the film buffs who love all the DVD/Blu-ray extras and demand the best HD reproduction on their home theatre systems, but would like to rip the odd film to watch on their iPads) the lack of an optical drive as standard is a big deal.

Then there's the recordkeeping issues to consider. It's not that long ago that high-quality optical media was being recommended as a good 'vault' for digital information and lots of organisations will have neatly arranged rows of CDs and DVDs within their collections. Similarly, I wonder whether we're now approaching a situation where we have to keep an optical drive around which can be plugged into a more modern machine to resurrect the only known copy of some important file, in the same way as we've had to keep floppy drives around for the same reason for some years now? In essence, I'm asking whether Apple's decision to ship a desktop computer without an optical drive points to impending obsolescence in the same way that the iMac's lack of a floppy drive did 13 years ago?

Apple are, in all likelihood, a little ahead of the curve here. Although the first iMac shipped in 1998 it arguably took until the mid-2000s before the rest of the IT industry caught up and stopped putting floppy drives in their PCs as a standard part. However, Moore's Law and the exponential pace of development in technology suggest that if the Mac mini is a portent of the death of plastic discs as viable choices for storage, we'll be writing the epitaph soon; optical media is unlikely to be with us as a mainstream option for too much longer.

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