Apple Pulls Life Support on Optical Media

Last month, Apple announced a 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display, an inevitability to replace the “previous-generation” 13″ MacBook Pro sans high-resolution display. While that old model remains available as a cheaper alternative for the holiday season, our guess is it will be completely removed from Apple’s lineup by the end of next year leaving not a single consumer-level Mac with an optical drive.

What started with the MacBook Air in 2008, and seemed like a crazy concept to an industry reliant on hard media, is now complete, four years later. With software distribution moving entirely to the web and entertainment increasingly being bought and stored in the cloud, the need for an optical drive is diminishing, right?

Take a Trip to 2008

It’s January 2008 and Steve Jobs is on stage at MacWorld. One of the key announcements of the presentation is the MacBook Air, a brand new MacBook line that completely foregoes the optical drive in favour of a much thinner form factor. The need for an optical drive is downplayed, with the alternative of living in iTunes’ world meaning one no longer needs bother himself with silly old disks.

Steve Jobs introduces the MacBook Air as a device without an optical drive.

Skip forward to 2012 and not only has iTunes continued to expand its library of content, it’s also available in more territories around the world. The MacBook Air has seriously evolved, becoming an affordable, flagship product rather than an overpriced, underpowered toy for the rich.

Then, in a year heavily focused on new hardware (compared to 2011’s heavy slant towards software) releases, Apple also launches a lineup of new, “next-generation” MacBook Pros that drop the optical drive, alongside a redesign of the iMac to drop a few pounds. Pounds that include that bulky optical drive. Form over function indeed.

Redmond, Start Your Photocopiers

Joking aside (especially since such a movement has been motivated by Intel, not Microsoft, who instead are focusing on tablet/laptop hybrids), the popularity of the MacBook Air has been met with similar “Ultrabooks”, Windows notebooks that share a number of key characteristics, most prominent being a radically thinner form factor.

Ultrabooks, too, are dropping the optical drive in favour of thinner bodies.

Ultrabooks differ from the MacBook Air in that the latter sits as Apple’s entry-level notebook, whereas Ultrabooks are very much premium machines. However, the movement shows a trend towards devices without optical drives on both sides. Add to that an increasing use of tablets and other mobile devices, and we have a world rapidly opting for digital mediums over physical alternatives.

Are We Ready?

The MacBook Air would have been an understandably controversial product in 2008 but things are different in the modern day. The Mac App Store has launched and, even if you don’t use that particular storefront, it’s uncommon to be picking up a disk to install some sort of software. For games, Steam launched on the Mac in 2010 and EA is set to launch Origin for OS X soon.

Likewise, iTunes continues to expand its content and reach. With the launch of iCloud last year, better tools are also brought for redownloading your content and having it available across platforms. It might not be perfect for those who own an expansive library of optical media, but younger generations born into a diskless world won’t noticed the change. At least, that seems like the big picture.

The iTunes Store provides a viable alternative to optical media for entertainment.

Final Thoughts

Apple’s given a strong four-year warning to critics of a world without optical media. It’s happening. If you’re up for entrusting your content to Apple, iTunes provides a very worthy solution and alternative to optical media. And the iMac and MacBook Pros simply stand as examples of the advantages of dropping such hardware.

With external drives available, the outdated hardware is there to be shared. It’s easy enough for a family or a business to share an external drive in the same way they do a printer, all while enjoying the benefits of it not being built-in.

Yet, the writing’s on the wall. The optical drive is dead and I, for one, am glad to be enjoying the advantages of not having one bulking up my Mac.