“At one point, 50% of the CD’s produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it.”

Ahhh those were the days… Remember when an AOL CD came free with everything from a newspaper to a loaf of bread? You wouldn’t be able to get out of your house in the morning due to the pile of pointless shiny discs underneath your letterbox. On occasion, you had to take days off school or work whilst digging your way out. Our postman would feed us Mars bars through the letterbox. Digital snow days were such a nuisance in the 90s.

I think everyone knows what I’m talking about. It cost over $300 million to produce these CDs, and to what end? There were the obvious “green” issues, which are hard to ignore when you’re wasting that amount of plastic (and card packaging). I can honestly say that I never once actually used an AOL CD for it’s intended purpose – and I wasn’t alone – gaze upon the AOL Throne, or these alternate 61 uses for the spam CDs.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case – at least not to the same extent. In case you hadn’t noticed, retailers have begun to take (or been guilted into) the eco-friendly path in recent years, with packaging becoming more efficient, and with a big lean towards offering an online option where possible. This has been made possible mainly due to significant increases in both hardware and our broadband infrastructure. With the advent of ADSL came the demise of dial-up internet, meaning software no longer had to be posted out to you. Now you could order and download via the internet – whatever next, flying cars?

Guess again – The last 10 years or so have seen a digital explosion of technology, ranging from flashy smartphones to electric smartcars. Technology is relentlessly becoming cheaper, smaller, and better. It’s Moore’s Law at work, and it doesn’t look like things are going to slow down any time soon.

So why are we still using CDs and DVDs? If you want media today, you don’t need to leave the house. Music can be downloaded from the iTunes store or streamed from services like Spotify (who now have over 1 million users!) or Last.fm – to your computer and even to an iPhone or Xbox 360. Films and television shows are readily available via online streaming services (now with Facebook getting in on the action) and we’re on the brink of a major overhaul in terms of what we consider to be an effective media medium.

Before long, you wont see a CD or DVD in a shop.

A bold statement I’ll admit, but one based on simple observation. We’re not there yet, but once a few technologies catch up, there is going to be a digital Cambrian Explosion of epic proportion.

Let’s take a look at what is hindering our progress:

1. Internet speeds and infrastructure (and the cost of data).

Until both residential and mobile internet speeds are drastically increased, physical discs will not be outlawed. The day you can download a 1080p film to your iPad in the 3 minutes that you wait on the train platform, is the day you can start saying goodbye to our shiny circular friends. At the moment, while “on-the-go” internet has advanced in leaps and bounds, it is still temperamental at best. If you happen to live in Japan, I envy you.

Restrictions on the amount of data we are allowed to download will also need to be either abolished or drastically increased. “Unlimited” internet rarely delivers on it’s sensationalist claims. You often need an “unlimited” bank account to go with it. Across the pond in America, competitive mobile phone networks are trying to tempt new customers by offering unlimited data plans. Will this battle of service and price undercutting be the kick in the teeth that the industry needs?

2. Cost of hardware and storage.

You only need to look at the Apple store to realise that the days of a smartphone or tablet being affordable to every demographic are still quite a way off – and until such commodities become as standard as owning a pair of trousers, CDs and DVDs will still need to be available for those “without”.
Moore’s Law again rears it’s beautiful head here thankfully – with newer models being released each year, items are steadily becoming cheaper and more advanced.

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My biggest peeve however, is that the price increments are ridiculous in comparison to the size of storage. Between say a 16GB or 32GB model of a device, you can be charged around £100 extra – when we start to see TB instead of GB, and when such portable storage becomes built into an affordable handheld device, we might be getting closer to the “online switchover”. There’s simply not enough room for media on current models to consider such a step at this point.

As I write this, there has been a 64GB protoype iPhone leaked – check out the video here.

3. DRM (Digital Rights Management).

One of the main obstacles in the way of a non-physical media utopia are the restrictions imposed on the actual digital media itself. With a CD or DVD, if you want to share some music or a film with a friend, you put it in their hand and it’s theirs. With digitally purchased media however, there are certain restrictions imposed, many of which might not be immediately obvious to even the most discerning user. Music or video purchased and downloaded using the internet often has hidden file protection, which can stop you from transferring the files to any device for which it was not originally intended.

While this is necessary to a certain extent, for the obvious piracy issues, it can also hinder the innocent user from enjoying their legitimately paid-for media on their playback device of choice. You can put music ONTO an iPod, but you can’t take it OFF to use elsewhere. If I buy a DVD I can keep it forever – a lot of online services only allow you to rent a title before it expires and the file becomes useless. This may be the biggest threat to a digital revolution – people want the freedom to do what they want with something they have purchased. We shouldn’t be told how to watch something, or that we can only listen to an album on a certain device. CDs and DVDs have the upper hand here. Recently however, Apple made a step in the right direction by offering certain music DRM-free.

4. Cross device compatibility

Currently it is possible but not seamlessly easy to stream media from one device to another. Yet, like with everything else, it is becoming more supported with every day that passes. Considering the push from online services for consumers to purchase their media digitally, making use of networking and device cross-compatibility is becoming a neccessity.

If I download a movie from on my computer, how do I watch it on my HDTV? There are ways to stream the file wirelessly, using software such as TVersity. Or if your TV has a USB port, you could watch straight from a hard drive or memory stick, though these methods require a bit of legwork in getting things set up or transferring files. Apple are pioneering with Airplay and Apple TV, which allows you to stream both audio and video to your home media centre. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but like so many other things, is still too expensive to become commonplace.

One place to look at ingenuity is the computer game industry – again, there are methods being tried and tested which are on the brink of becoming the norm, but until internet speeds become consistently faster, and storage becomes a lot cheaper, the adoption rate is not going to skyrocket.

Currently you can download an Xbox 360 game VIA the console, which is then saved onto your hard drive. Full retail games come in at around 6-8GB of data on average, which when compared with the average bundled 120GB harddrive on the console, does not leave much breathing room once you have started to build a collection. Another nice feature is the built-in Sky Player which allows you to stream on-demand movies and TV shows to your console. Built in Last.fm allows you to stream music through your TV as an added bonus. PC gamers have been exposed to “on demand” games for a little while longer, with Steam software providing a one-stop shop for a variety of popluar titles for many years now, but with the freedom of cheap storage.

Not only that, but you must take into account your evil ISP, and the bandwidth throttling they will impose should you decide to download what they consider “too much”. DRM is again an issue, as you can’t just bring a game around to a friend’s house if it’s stored on your console and locked to your particular account.
So once again, we can see the battle of innovative technology, hindered by the legal restrictions set by the powers that be. It’s an uphill struggle.

PREDICTIONS / CONCLUSION

How long will it be before you can walk into a shop with your smartphone or tablet device and “bump” to pay, leaving with the file in your pocket within seconds? And then when you get home, transfer it directly onto an inbuilt multi-terabyte TV hardrive.
Or better yet, sit in the park and download a 1080p film to your tablet within seconds, while your friend lays down the picnic blanket…

This will happen, it’s just a question of when.

I envision a time when CDs will be laughed at, much like we laugh at formats of days passed, such as VHS or floppy disks. They will be kept only as collectors items, and not as a convenient and applicable medium, as they are barely still considered to be.

They will go the way of the Dodo, as vinyls did before them. Even collectors vinyls are already being replaced with collectors vinyl replicas on CD. How’s that for meta?

Bricks and mortar stores will exist for a long time still, but may downsize as media goes digital. Higher online sales means retailers need to rethink highstreet stores – as we have seen many high street stores go into administration as more and more consumers opt for digital versions.

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Storage is still too expensive, but getting cheaper. A digital conversion certainly seems like a step in the right direction in a world where we consume so many natural resources; digital = no packaging.
Until our internet speeds are supersized, alternatives may be used in the interim – maybe flash storage to replace CDs, DVDs and Blurays – this would revolutionise high street stores. Imagine seeing a shelf full of USB sticks as opposed to chunky DVD cases? Or a terminal you can walk up to in order to purchase and transfer files onto your phone. Retailers would certainly save money on floorspace.

We’ll see convergence of media into existing devices, allowing us to more freely access the content we want, when we want it, and what we want to watch it on. Already, I can stream HD quality BBC programming through my Bluray player.

Apple’s new Thunderbolt technology – which allows data to be transferred at 10Gbps – could be the stepping stone to offering digital media to be put onto your device at the till.
Will Bluray be the next minidisc? There was a very short lifespan between music CDs and the widespread adoption of the MP3. Maybe Bluray will be the stop-gap between DVD and the download?

Whatever happens next, CDs will be clawed onto until the majority are ready for non-physical media to become the mainstream.

When was the last time you used a CD?

Your Comments

  1. I actually play CDs often on the hifi and even played a vinyl record the other day. More often though I buy the CD then rip it to my mp3 player and PS3. I don’t like to download my.music as I still prefer to have the physical product.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sharon! Yes, it seems that IF people are still using CD’s, it’s mainly for music, and a lot of people say they just use them because the car has a CD player! I own music CD’s, but keep them only for posterity, and never actually play them. Likewise I own a few vinyls, but they are framed! 🙂

  3. How long until the generation of car’s with CD’s is phased out? I need to keep buying them, or I burn my downloaded purchases onto CD. Still, it’s not as bad as my house mate’s car. She only has a cassette player! Old school!

  4. Thanks Annem 🙂
    Maybe if I could drive I would also use CD’s more often 😉
    For now it’s the tube and my iPod – but one day, when I eventually get a car, I hope there’s not a CD in sight! Love that she has a cassette player still!

  5. Wow!, this was a top quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never seem to get something done.

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