Is the optical drive going the way of the floppy?

Technology is ever changing. What was ubiquitous one day can be archaic the next. Cassette drives no longer run software. We don't transfer files on a floppy disk, either 5.25-inch or 3.5-inch. And today, a compelling case can be made that the days of the optical disc drive may be numbered.

The optical drive has, for a number of years, been a standard feature on desktop and laptop computers. It's how we purchase and install software, and digitize our music collections. And, with a burner, it's how we make back-ups of our ever-expanding photo and media collections, or transfer our home videos to DVD to watch on our television or send to family and friends.

However, Chetan Joshi, an account executive for business development with Lenovo Canada, said he's seeing less and less demand for optical drives from his customers, and he believes it's only a matter of time before they go the way of the floppy drive.

"I definitely think it's safe to say its days are numbered as we move toward the cloud, slates and tablet devices," said Joshi. "Our goal for ultramobile is thin and light, and it's inevitable that the death of the CD drive will be part of that mix."

A number of factors are contributing to the trend, said Joshi. Flash media prices are dropping dramatically, making memory sticks and external back-up drives not only a cheaper alternative to optical discs, but a speedier one as well.

"We're a generation of instant gratification. It takes time to burn a CD," said Joshi. "We want instant gratification, and a flash drive gives us that.

Flash drives also give us encryption and security options that you can get from an optical disc, notes Joshi.

New device form factors such as tablets, slates and netbooks are getting people used to the idea of not needing an optical drive. Operating system files are on a separate partition on the hard drive on most new computers, and new applications are purchased and downloaded over the Web through the ever-expanding app store model.

With more and more vendors making their applications available for purchase online, and with more and more users getting used to this model, Joshi notes the use cases justifying the need for an optical drive are being ticked-off one by one. Even online movie services such as Netflix are removing the need for a DVD drive to play a movie on your laptop.

Lenovo is beginning to look at shifting away from optical drives in future product sets, said Joshi. Slates and tablets, the hottest form factors, are already optical drive free, and with ultrathin and mobile the trend in laptops, most purchasers there are opting to ditch the optical drive. The trend is slower on the desktop side but it is there, said Joshi. Lenovo's newest consumer desktop all-in-one, the IdeaCenter A310, has no optical drive.

"We're starting to see a dramatic decrease in the use of optical drives today, and in the next couple of years it will fade-out completely," said Joshi, noting the last hold-out will likely be the enterprise space, which is more resistant to change and has the need to support legacy processes.

That view of the market trend meshes with what volume IT reseller CDW Canada is seeing in the market. Daniel Reio, director of marketing for CDW Canada, said CDW sees optical drives continuing to decline in popularity due to increasing high-speed Internet connectivity and the prevalence of large USB drives and portable USB hard drives.

"The trend toward software licensing via downloadable media will continue, which means the need for an optical drive will continue to decrease," said Reio. "This decline has been coming for some time, though the need for an optical drive remained on laptops so that users could play DVDs while travelling. But even that need is declining due to the prevalence of downloadable video content."

CDW isn't writing off the optical drive entirely though. Reio said the optical drive's most important role will probably remain as a recovery device, since the standard practice to recover a PC today is by use of an optical disc.

And not everyone is bullish on the death of the optical drive. Tim Brunt, senior analyst, personal computing with IDC Canada, said some strong use cases for the optical drive still remain.

"I don't think it's going to go the way of the floppy," said Brunt. "There are certainly good reasons to have an optical drive, maybe just not internally to the device anymore."

Blu-ray players remain popular, CDs and DVDs are still the back-up standard, and most software at retail still comes on optical disks, noted Brunt.

"I think the big transition is moving away from having it available internally in the device to being available externally and connecting to the desktop, laptop or tablet with a USB connection," said Brunt.

Certainly over time, as people and businesses start to manage their data more efficiently, the reliance on optical drives will lessen, said Brunt. And he agrees tablets and the app store model, as well as streaming video and the increasingly availability of the needed bandwidth, are pointing the way to new models of computing.

According to an IDC Canada study, when asked what are the features you consider most important in a portable computer, last year 27 per cent of respondents said an optical drive. This year, just 17 per cent said the same.

"But I don't think people could do entirely without it. The ability to connect to an optical drive is certainly not going away; people will still want to do it," said Brunt. "It just won't be something that's necessary on every single device anymore."

[Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.]

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