I’ve been saying for sometime that Apple is about to kill off the optical drive inside its future laptop ranges. And tucked into Steve Jobs’ keynote today was probably the foundation of that strategy.
The new MacBook Air (which is sans-optical drive) comes with a special usb-thumb drive that enables users to reinstall their operating system. It looks like this:
You can install an operating system from any external drive – it doesn’t have to be a DVD, it can be a USB disk, external hard drive or even an SD card. But you do need some kind of external disk, in case you can’t boot into the laptop, leaving the OS as the only piece of software that needs to be delivered via physical medium.
You can already download iLife and iWorks via the internet and license them online. And with the announcement of the App Store for Mac, Apple is clearly signaling the end of physical distribution of software.
Finally, if you subscribe to the Steve Jobs way of consuming media, the CD and DVD also dead there too. All the music, tv and films you could ever want are available for download via iTunes – be it to your Mac, iPhone or AppleTV.
Even if you consume your media independently, the Amazon MP3 store, music-on-demand services such Pandora and the continued widespread use of p2p all support the end of the physical distribution of media. NetFlix (probably anticipating this) are about to release a streaming-only service very soon too.
Plus there are many gains to be had on the hardware side of things
There’s another side to this story, which are the benefits to Apple from the loss of the optical drive.
Even in a large laptop like the MacBook Pro 15″ that I’m typing this post on, you can see from the image below that a large amount of footprint is taken up by the optical drive. Check out this photo from iFixIt.com which clearly shows the optical drive in green:
Every time Apple makes its laptops smaller, lighter and thinner they are having to deal with an awkward component that can’t be made any smaller – the optical drive has to take a 5″ disk regardless of the size of the laptop.
One of the reasons the iPad has such battery life is the ability for Apple to stuff the case full of battery. With the optical drive gone, Apple can make thinner laptops that have more battery inside them.
Finally, piracy can probably also be reduced if the USB keys themselves contain some kind of proprietary mechanism to check the operating system is being installed from an Apple-manufactured memory stick.
Given Apple’s fairly recent switch to including SD card slots on MacBooks, I actually thought they would go with SD card but it looks like USB drive is going to be the medium of choice. I guess as the MacBook Air 11″ has shown, Apple has designs on such small technology that even an SD slot may be too big to accomodate across all of it’s lines.