Editorial: Apple's officially over the optical drive, for better or worse

I don't like it. Not one iota. But frankly, it doesn't much matter -- Apple's officially done with the optical drive, and there's no evidence more strikingly clear than the mid 2011 refresh of its Mac mini. Last year, that bantam box arrived with a $699 price tag, pep in its step and a personality that could charm even the most hardened desktop owner. This year, a $599 model showed up on my doorstep promising the same, but instead it delivered a noticeable drop in actual functionality. Pundits have argued that you could tether a USB SuperDrive to the new mini and save $20 in the process compared to last year's rig, but does relying on a cabled accessory go hand-in-hand with beauty and simplicity? No, and I've every reason to believe that Apple would agree.

Despite the obvious -- that consumers would buy a mini to reduce the sheer burden of operating a convoluted desktop setup -- Apple's gone and yanked what has become a staple in both Macs and PCs alike. For years, ODDs have been standard fare, spinning CDs, DVDs, HD-DVDs (however briefly) and Blu-ray Discs, not to mention a few other formats that didn't do much to deserve a mention. Compared to most everything else in the technology universe, the tried-and-true optical drive has managed to hang around well beyond what it's creator likely had in mind, but it's pretty obvious that 2011 is to the ODD what 1998 was to the floppy drive. At least in the mind of one Steven P. Jobs.

For those who claim to be a bit newer to the world (read: not "of age"), you may not be intimately familiar with the backlash that came as the original iMac was introduced. Front and center sat a tray-loading optical drive, but a 3.5-inch floppy disc drive was nowhere to be found. "On a computer aimed at the home office and education?!" Yes, on a computer aimed at the home office and education. Without polling a soul, Apple decided the industry should move right along, and those insistent on maintaining a legacy profile were given the oh-so-abhorrent (I kid, I kid) option of snapping up an external alternative. I'm guessing here is where you start to see history repeating itself.

Over the past few years, Apple's been slyly but deliberately severing ties with a piece of hardware that most rational humans still view as essential on a full-scale computer. Nearly three years ago to the day, the original MacBook Air was introduced alongside a $99 external SuperDrive -- a peripheral that was nearly as tall as the laptop it was designed to complement. At the time, I never really saw it as the beginning of the end. My failure was not realizing that Apple rarely does one "thing" without eventually spreading that very "thing" as far as it can reasonably go... and oftentimes, further. I also cheered the move; it was a necessary sacrifice to craft the slimmest ultraportable known to man, and the simple reality is that ultramobile machines are engineered with compromise in mind. It's a well-recognized assumption that a ludicrously small computer will be lacking a few features that are prevalent on larger machines, just for the sake of being abnormally small.

My point? Ultraportables were never actually used as archival machines. Sure, you may have wanted to use one to watch the occasional DVD, but more often than not, ultraportables were being purchased by serious road warriors with one thing in mind: productivity and connectivity. Tossing in a DVD was somewhere so far down the chain that the loss of an ODD was effectively a non-factor.

And then, Apple planted a stake in the wondrous western swath of North Carolina. It took what felt like eons for the folks in Cupertino to actually get its Maiden, NC data center operational, but when I saw Steve Jobs himself extol its virtues and harp on its promise at WWDC this year, I should've realized what was coming next. iCloud wasn't even the beginning -- it all began on the software front with iTunes. I've believed for years that Apple figured out what no one else could early on: it's dangerously easy to change brands, but escaping an ecosystem is absolute torture. Apple raked in the masses with its iTunes Music Store, which eventually began to hawk movies, music videos, exclusive content, iTunes LP material, and just about anything else your digital heart could ever want. Yes, even The Beatles.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Pairing iTunes and iCloud (along with that homespun data center) was a dagger to the heart of physical media, and if nothing else, stood as an undeniable example of where Apple was envisioning the future of media. In Apple's world, everything's just a download away -- even its latest operating system, which weighs in at 4GB. Oh, and also in nations where the iTunes store is bare due to cross-border licensing quirks. And strangely, even if you live in a region of that world with limited iTunes offers. Reaching over to grab a data-filled Frisbee has now been deemed a long-lost art, and it also clashes with the company's newfound mantra of having absolute cloud access to everything. I've gotta say, though -- it's a wee bit difficult to shove 50GB worth of Blu-ray goodness into a North Carolina sky, and I'm saying that while residing just a few hours to the right.

Even if Apple knows that the cloud is the next frontier, does the best route really involve the sudden death of the optical drive? The loss of the floppy was forgivable; even in 1998, while I was poking along on a 56k dial-up connection, I could upload 1.44MB -- the cap on most standard 3.5-inch floppies -- in a matter of minutes. Neither the RIAA nor the MPAA ever doled out a single record or motion picture on a floppy disc. In reality, the floppy was never really rooted in any industry outside of the storage one.

But compare that to a modern-day Blu-ray Disc. Even with DOCSIS 3.0 at my home, it'd take well beyond a day to upload 50GB to any outside destination, and even a single-sided DVD would take hours on end for those with an average broadband connection. Oh, and we haven't even broached the topic of monthly data caps. Moreover, consumers are buying movies and music by the truckloads on physical media, not to mention games, applications, maps, etc. Those informing you that the "disc is dead" are clearly not looking at the numbers. People aren't buying as many discs, but tossing 'em in the proverbial grave is more sensationalistic reaction than anything else.

I made crystal clear in my Mac mini review just how awful a decision it was to nix the ODD in the consumer version of the machine, particularly with Apple making no efforts whatsoever to shrink the chassis in the drive's absence. My primary beef is the removal of an optical drive on a desktop. Is Apple seriously so naive that it thinks all Mac mini users will be perfectly fine taking to the wild, wild web to find whatever content and software they'd like to enjoy, including new-release films and 1080p content? And what, may I ask, comes next?

Funny enough, rumors are currently reaching fever pitch surrounding the next generation of 15- and 17-inch Apple laptops. No sooner than the 13-inch Air was loosed onto the world, I longed for a 15-inch model with a similar design. Sleek and lightweight, but with plenty of palm rest space, a stupendous high resolution display (that's the real kicker, if you're curious), and an even stronger battery. If TUAW and MacRumors have their sources straight, I may be looking at a dream fulfilled by Christmastime. And if my senses are correct, neither of these things will boast optical drives... despite being classified as MacBook Pros, not MacBook Airs.

So, where does that leave us? Staring at the stark possibility of a Mac lineup with an ODD-less entry-level desktop, no standard MacBook at all (outside of education), and nary a MacBook Air / Pro with an optical drive. And if I'm really going out on a limb, I might say that the iMac is next on the chopping block -- you know, once Apple retools it to be as thin as the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display it just outed. It's a future I'm pretty chafed about (seriously, a "Pro" machine with no ability to toast films from iDVD or Final Cut Pro?), but Apple's got the market share, the cash -- and frankly, the cajones -- to take a calculated risk while simultaneously nudging buyers to rely more and more on its own ecosystem. For everything.

So with that, I end on a rather hopeless note. The optical drive, so far as Apple is concerned, is dead. And if I had to guess, I'd say it's just a matter of time before it figures out a way to deplete its remaining inventory while crafting ever-thinner machines that make it nigh impossible to question the rationale. But hey, at least we've got the Mac Pro.

For now.