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No future is visible for optical media

Earlier this week Apple announced MacBooks now came with an SD slot. They still did not announce any Blu-ray support, despite being a major Blu-ray Disc Association member. Just like when they standardized on USB or when they ditched the floppy, this is telling.

Whatever you think of Apple, as a system company they sure have a history of doing a good job building things people (will) want. SD cards have done a pretty good job of taking over the flash memory market, second only to thumb drives. The addition of a slot on portables is a welcome start for Apple, and probably means similar support on other systems in the future.

So why is that a nail in the coffin of Blu-ray or, worse, all optical media? It's just Apple reading the writing on the wall. The reality is that optical media has not been keeping up with the rapid advances of other storage technology. Even if HVD were readily available today it would be lagging behind.

Let's put it into perspective using the Apple history timeline. The first Mac that shipped with a CD-ROM was the Performa 600. It also shipped with a whopping 80MB hard drive, making optical storage 7.5 times more dense than common magnetic technology of the time. By the time Apple was shipping Macs with DVD drives, hard drives were around 15GB, eroding optical to 1/3 the relative capacity. Today Apple ships iMacs with around 500GB hard drives, making Blu-ray (at best) only 1/10th the size. At $5 for a 25GB BD-R disc, you'll spend $100 on media alone if you wanted to back up that hard drive to Blu-ray, whereas a second 500MB hard drive would only cost you $60.

"But, Impossibly Stupid", you say, "isn't flash memory usually smaller and more expensive than Blu-ray?" Maybe. SD cards in their sweet spot range (currently 8-16GB) are around $2/GB compared to just $0.2/GB for the BD-R media. While the SD card can be used over and over, though, the Blu-ray disc is write-once and the burn could fail. That's something that adds up at $5 a pop. You also have to factor in the price of the Blu-ray drive itself, which is going to add $100-200 as an optional offering. You'd come out ahead after you burn your first 100GB, but only if you never want to save that data ever again.

As you can see, optical is just getting squeezed too much to have a place on the desktop. For a large volume of data, hard drives have it beat in cost. For portability, flash memory is going to keep making gains. For even smaller amounts of data, the Internet has filled the role that DVDs and CDs used to take. Apple hasn't yet killed optical media like it killed the floppy, but they did fire a warning shot this week, and without some breakthrough technology that'll put 10TB on a disc for under $100 in the next 3 years, optical storage needs to die.