Recently, in my capacity as technical writer, I was asked to use an old piece of software not installed on my PC and not found on my company’s network. I was told that one of the older PCs in our computer lab still had the software, so I took my coffee and my USB memory stick and walked down the hall. Once settled in and logged on, I went to transfer my data to the machine’s desktop so I could get to work.
The slot of a three-and-a-half-inch drive stared uselessly back at me.
The PC in question was old enough that it had only a CD drive and a “floppy” drive, which of course proved to be something of a problem. I’m old enough to remember when floppy disks were truly so, for I kept the first two years of my college correspondence and other assignments on a single five-and-a-quarter-inch disk. The swelling size of individual files eventually prompted my move from the older disks to the newer 3.5-inch media. I can remember, early in my career, the painstaking process that was running backups of certain critical data onto multiple 3.5-inch disks that had to be reloaded in sequence to restore what was saved to them.
For a time, I kept backups of all my data – of which, as a prolific writer and an amateur photographer, I had hundreds on hundreds of megabytes – on spools of rewritable CDs stored in their cylindrical plastic cases. Even then, I longed for a way to more easily store my data, such as an external backup drive capable of housing everything in one location. When the opportunity to purchase my first terabyte drive came, I took it eagerly. My eagerness was, though I did not know it, a sign of a bigger issue. It was the death knell of a recording medium that no longer has sufficient storage capacity to make it relevant.
Tony Bradley, writing for PCWorld, recently declared the disc obsolete, saying, “Thank you for your service, CDs and DVDs, but your time has passed. Buh-bye.” He outlines six reasons why he believes the technology is no longer viable, including the noise of CD/DVD drives, the point of mechanical failure that is a disc drive with moving parts, the superior convenience of streaming media content and the faster speed of reading a local drive versus reading a solid-state drive.
What is killing the CD and DVD is storage space. Terabyte drives are now common. As of this writing, two-terabyte drives can be had for less than $100. Three-terabyte external hard drives cost only slightly more. A compact disc holds a paltry 700 megabytes of data. A dual-layer, single-sided DVD holds 8.5 gigabytes, which is an order of magnitude better by comparison – but pathetic when you consider that you can purchase a fully reusable flash-memory USB stick that holds 16 gigabytes for less than $20, a price that drops almost daily as the price for flash memory plummets. In my work for industrial clients, I have already seen CDs rejected as delivery media because they aren’t large enough to hold the software being shipped.
Just last week, Adam Oxford, in PCGamer, wondered if flash-memory technology might not replace RAM as your PC’s “memory of choice” (per the Computer World report Oxford cites). He writes:
Solid-state storage drives based on NAND flash memory provide more performance per pound than DRAM, and will eventually become the “memory of choice” in a new PC. So says a report by Objective Analysis. …
Researchers at Objective ran 300 benchmarks comparing aspects of system performance. They tested various combinations of DRAM, SSD drives and traditional hard drives for system storage. While they don’t conclude that DRAM will vanish any time soon, they do reckon that dollar for dollar, buying an SSD is a much better upgrade for a current PC. That will improve further in SSD’s favor as prices drop and drive technology gets faster.
As we progress to a content model in which our data spends its time on local drives, transported there through flash memory or by direct media streaming, it is, of course, the Internet that bears the brunt of those transfers. Already, the enormous percentage of Internet traffic that is streaming video is causing service providers to eye different ways to charge customers for data traffic. Cecilia Kang calls it “the looming threat of Netflix,” and she’s absolutely correct:
Netflix this week declared that the future of video entertainment is online, saying the DVD market has “peaked.” … [Internet service providers are reacting to increased Internet data traffic from streaming by] moving to charge consumers for every bit of data they consume. … In the face of such data caps, consumers could think twice before watching a streaming video over their smartphone or computer, worried that they would blow past data caps and trigger penalty fees on their monthly bills, industry analysts said.
Changing models for data traffic and the cost of that traffic are nothing new; cable companies and other providers have been trying – sometimes hesitantly – to charge per consumption, rather than absorb the high bandwidth of “unlimited” data plans, for some time now. In some cases consumer outrage has prompted the service providers involved to pull back in their attempts to impose data caps and overage fees.
Increasing rancor over data traffic and its cost lies behind (at least originally) the push for “net neutrality” legislation, enacting of which would, arguably, cripple service providers by preventing them from managing their data traffic. The unintended consequences of such regulations, like “rent control,” would prevent the market and those within it form responding to real cost pressures and managing supply against demand accordingly.
Everyone loses in such a scenario … and it all starts with the fact that our data has outgrown CDs and DVDs. Technology ever evolves, and quickly so. We, as users and consumers, must adapt with it, or become as obsolete as the recording discs we now don’t, won’t, or can’t use.