When was the last time you had to buy something on a DVD or CD-ROM and install it on your optical drive? In the computer software world, that has probably been a long time and the likes of the smartphone or tablet PC has meant that the use of the humble media disc is often relegated to posterity rather than necessity.
I admit that I went out to my local computer retailer and bought on DVD the latest incarnation of the World of Warcraft series of expansions. I have the option of buying this online and direct from Blizzard for a respectable price but I like the thought of actually having the box and the installation media in my hand.
What Are Optical Drives Used For?
A good question if you are only an occasional computer user. The optical drive has since the early 1990's been the installation medium of choice for operating systems like Microsoft Windows, business and pleasure software, games and demos. You can also use a CD or DVD writer to "burn" data, backing it up for archiving, dispatch or just for posterity; even in recent years backing up your desktop computer would be to a range of dozens of blank CD's neatly stored on spindles or in cardboard CD sleeves.
What people forget though is that these are also found in all manner of other devices other than the humble desktop PC. Games consoles rely on DVD players for both game content and piracy prevention reasons, the physical possession of the game proving ownership (at least in the majority of cases); televisions now come with built-in DVD drives for viewing movies or digital photography; even in supermarkets, photograph labs often have "develop your own" kiosks that allow you to upload your picture from a CD-ROM as well as other formats.
The CD and DVD are indeed, still in popular demand.
So What Has Changed?
In the computing sense, technology has developed at such a speed that installation media is no longer exclusively physical. The rapid increase in smartphone ownership has led to a similar push towards the need for software to be available to install on them; similarly tablet computers are designed with space saving in mind to make them lighter, the optical drive being a notable absence from them.
Similarly in the games world, the desire for continual updates means that inevitably the DVD with the installation software on is obsolete before it is even sold, needing an online update once the software has left the store shelf and installed by the end user.
This has been circumvented by software houses such as Blizzard (publishers of the Diablo and World of Warcraft series') and Valve (developers of the Steam platform) by allowing gamers to download direct from their servers or from each other using peer-2-peer downloading to download their games. this has led the way in digital downloading and using superfast broadband whole games can be downloaded in almost as short a time as installing from a DVD.
For Example: I recently started to get World of Warcraft back to a ready state for the new expansion pack needing 8GB of data downloads (that is one dual-layer DVD's worth). Using a popular network of free Wi-Fi hotspots I managed to download this in less than 2 hours - while I was shopping and having a coffee in the hotspot's host.
There is obviously the problem that you need a reasonable Broadband or cable Internet connection speed and a sizeable download limit (or indeed unlimited broadband); but my example proves the point of just how fast you can buy and download something online.
What is Already Happening?
The first of the big computer parts manufacturers; Sony, have announced in a report that they will be closing down their optical drive business Sony Optiarc and stop manufacturing CD and DVD drives for consumer computing as early as March 2013. Respected Japanese national newspaper The Asahi Shimbun published a news article stating that Sony will be winding down Sony Optiarc Inc. as part of a restructuring to recover from losses which reached $5.8 billion (US) in 2011.
The Asahi Shimbun goes on to cite that Sony's sales count for some 10%-15% of the market, yet they still make massive losses each year because of the need to continually cut prices. The blame was partly attributed to mass production from elsewhere in Asia at a considerable discount.
In the short to medium term these millions of sales will be absorbed by other manufacturers deep within the Asian Silicon Valleys which might peak their profits for a short while until they too will succumb to the inevitable cut throat business of computer parts for the Western World.
So What Happens Next?
In essence, nothing. It is true that for the desktop personal computer the need of physical media such as DVD and CD discs is decreasing rapidly, but then there are those software companies that still insist on it. There will in the medium-term be a massive ongoing want to back-up family photo's and documents onto shiny discs because cloud-storage is still a new thing that is yet to be trusted. Businesses may find that the DVD Writer is a suitable replacement for storage tape technology that is still widespread in major businesses across the world when the consumer starts to move towards storing documents on Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Storage and many other suppliers.
If you are a gamer with the latest in XBox or PlayStation technology then nothing will change there. The development of computer parts for consoles is almost a completely different market and almost sub-contracted to in-house suppliers.
But with the increasing use of iPad and other tablet PC devices, the use of iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphone computers and even the Internet itself; the time will come where the big hole that is meant to house your DVD optical drive will just become another hole.