CDs Will Soon Be Considered Vintage Media

Well it was inevitable – and it hasn’t happened quite yet – but one of the most ubiquitous and successful digital formats of all time is headed towards vintage status. The CD in it’s various flavors (audio and data, replicated and recordable) is fast becoming a relic of the internet age.

CD-reflectionsThe writing’s been on the wall for years. The audio CD began to suffer first, with album sales declining over the past decade as online sales and music sharing grew in popularity. This year several labels announced that they would no longer sell albums on CDs at all. Despite the modest renewal of interest in vinyl, the CD is likely to be the last physical media on which we purchase music. It will join 78s, LPs and cassettes in the graveyard of formats past.

The CD-ROM and its successor, DVD-ROM, also held the throne for decades as the distribution media of choice for software and games. The shiny orb supplanted the floppy disk and became ubiquitous for Macs, PCs and game consoles of all kinds. Boxed software (with boxes much bigger than the discs they contained) was a commodity and continued as a retail staple.

CD and DVD recorders greatly expanded the use of these formats, and extended their useful lifetimes. Blank discs that once cost many dollars each now cost pennies on the dollar, and allow people and businesses to distribute music, video and data files easily to nearly any computer in use. Backup to CD-R anyone? Yet the end is near for recordable media as well.

Online downloads of music, movies and software is all the rage, and usage is accelerating. Apple mandates downloads of software for iOS devices, and encourages downloads on the Mac platform with the iTunes and Mac App Stores. Operating system distribution has moved online under OS X Lion, and Apple no longer sells boxed software in their stores. Other vendors are following suit, Microsoft has similar plans for Windows 8.

New computers – led again by Apple and the MacBook Air – are shipping without any optical drive at all. You can buy an external drive as an accessory, but it’s relegated to peripheral status. Most desktops still include drives but that too is changing, such as with the new Mac Mini. And for file transfers, USB flash drives are ubiquitous and inexpensive in 8GB and 16GB capacities. The latter holds more than dual-layer DVDs and easily fits in your pocket or keychain.

So how long before no computers ship with CD/DVD drives of any kind? Two years? Five? Certainly they’ll be completely gone and likely out of manufacture in under a decade. All those backups you’re making today won’t be readable when your computer doesn’t have an optical drive. Then the working drives still around become valuable tools for reading old Mac (and PC) data storage formats.

I will mourn the passing of these shiny orbs, they’ve been the dominate media and data format of my lifetime. CDs can be held in one hand, reflect beautiful rainbows of light, and are something physical you can possess and own. My music CDs have printed booklets, no DRM, and can’t be erased or disabled. My DVDs don’t expire and can be lent to friends and family. And I can still install older versions of the Mac OS – albeit slowly – from optical disc.

The Vintage Mac Museum stands ready to read and transfer old CDs and DVDs when the inevitable day arrives. That day may not be too far away.

One response to “CDs Will Soon Be Considered Vintage Media”

  1. Adam Rosen says:


    arkansas it services said…
    Looks like it’s ready to go.
    February 16, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    mel said…
    I love optical discs – DVDs and CDs – I have many of them. I guess I’ll have to stock up on a couple of back-up external optical drives. I already have one that I regularly use.
    May 17, 2012 at 8:04 PM

    Matt Kuhns said…
    Interesting, I just came across this though I wrote about similar notions a month ago. I wish I had seen your post at the time.

    I was a bit more optimistic than you, but maybe you’re right. Perhaps I’d better go through software discs I think I’ll want down the road and get them converted into disk images one of these days…
    May 24, 2012 at 9:59 PM

    Anonymous said…
    Looks like RIAA wins. As long as you’ve purchased physical media, you have a SCOTUS right to make a backup. How they HOWLED about cassettes, VHS, writable DVDs. Now, pay-per-play wouldn’t suprise (jukebox revisited?).

    And like privacy, noone had to steal it, just make giving it up more convenient. Think Facebook and Twitter, then TOR search Bluffdale and No Such Agency…

    As Firesign noted; “The future-its not what it used to be”.
    May 29, 2012 at 8:41 AM

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