Apple and the incredible vanishing CD drive

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When Apple announced new Macs last week, one thing that was notably absent from the new models presented was an optical drive. While Apple has been phasing out CD/DVD drives since the introduction of the MacBook Air in January 2008, the shift has been slow and gradual. But on Tuesday, Apple dealt a big blow to the music and movie industries.

If you look at Apple’s current lineup of Macs, only two models contain built-in optical drives. One is the Mac Pro, which hasn’t been updated for ages, and which is designed for professional users. The Mac Pro is unique, as you can actually put a second optical drive in it, but Apple has vowed to release a new pro desktop in 2013 and who knows what it's design will be. the other model with a bulit-in optical drive is the regular, non-Retina-display MacBook Pro. But the new iMac, in order to obtain its svelte edges, abandons the optical drive, and the Mac mini hasn’t had one since the compact model was released in July 2011. (The Mac mini server released in 2009 also eschewed an optical drive, but servers don’t generally include them.) All of Apple’s other laptops—the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pros with Retina displays—are bereft of optical drives.

Apple's $79 USB SuperDrive might be a necessary add-on with your next Mac.

While removing the optical drive saves space—CDs and DVDs dictate the minimum size of such drives—it also means that owners of these new Macs can no longer rip CDs without a lot of extra work. Sure, you can buy an external optical drive—Apple sells its USB SuperDrive for $79, and you can get external CD/DVD drives from other brands for $30 or less. And while plenty of people buy music via download, there are still a lot of CD sales (not to mention built-up collections). The lack of an optical drive might be the final nudge that gets people to look to the iTunes Store (or Amazon MP3, even) for their music instead of to their local record store (assuming they still actually have one).

You can use optical drives to play DVDs too, of course, and many Mac users did just that on their beautiful 27-inch iMacs. Apple has chosen not to support Blu-ray playback on Macs—Steve Jobs in 2008 famously referred to Blu-ray’s licensing as “a bag of hurt,” and the company’s senior VP of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, said pretty much the same to Harry McCracken at Time last week—so that lack of support is not a loss per se. But the obvious choice is, again, the iTunes Store for movies.

Outside of bandwidth, there’s no good reason to opt for standard definition these days. I’d guess that most people who download movies from the iTunes Store also have an HDTV, and why bother buying Blu-ray discs when you can get the movies from Apple without leaving your house (and know that they’ll play on your Apple TV, Mac, and iOS device)?

It was 11 eleven years ago that Apple launched its famous “Rip. Mix. Burn." ad campaign, touting the ability to easily rip CDs, add them to iTunes, create your own playlists, and burn them to CD. That campaign came on the heels of Apple’s first iMac with a CD-RW drive, in February 2001, with a press release saying “Rip, Mix, Burn Your Own Custom Music CDs.” (Previous iMacs had read-only CD or CD/DVD drives.) Now, without an optical drive, all that’s left of that slogan is the “Mix” part—namely, the making of playlists (or letting iTunes’ Genius feature make them for you).

Rip. Mix. Burn? Not so fast.

We’ve come a long way since then, and the music industry has come to embrace digital music. In fact, for some time now the iTunes Store has been the biggest music retailer in the United States—and that's all music sales, not just downloads. At the same time, more labels are selling their music directly to consumers, via their own websites, in often in formats that offer better quality than iTunes Store or Amazon MP3 downloads.

But the reality is that CDs are still a big part of music distribution, and they won’t die out anytime soon. Plenty of releases make it worth buying a piece of plastic: Budget discs and box sets (especially for classical music and jazz), for example. And I still find it nicer to give someone a gift they can open, rather than a gift certificate for a download. But for most purchases, Apple’s move is a sign that the CDs and DVDs are heading for their retirement. It’s just a matter of time.

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