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IS PHYSICAL MEDIA ON THE WAY OUT?

The CD is 30 years old, but is it past its prime?

CD’s were just about becoming popular for things other than music at the time we got our first computer in 1994. The hugely expensive machine ran DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.11, and the salesman made a huge deal about the fact that it had a new-fangled CD-ROM drive.

Not only could we enjoy crystal clear audio via the PC’s speakers, he told us, but we’d also be able to buy the latest software on CD-ROM, which would allow us to experience a true multimedia experience that just wasn’t possible with 3.5″ floppy disks.

Thems were the days…

He wasn’t wrong.  I remember being amazed at how a whole encyclopedia of knowledge could be held on one CD, not to mention being able to experience games with proper musical soundtracks and speech.

For the next 10 years or so, optical media ruled PC land.  New PC’s were shipped with the operating system on a single CD, rather than the 25 floppy disks needed for Windows 95.  Products like Office, Photoshop and CorelDraw were now able to include huge libraries of templates, images and animations.

Even games consoles switched to optical media rather than bespoke cartridges.  Sony’s original Playstation and the Sega Saturn were both hugely successful in 1995, and almost every home games console since then has used some form of optical disk.

But these days things are changing.

As early as 1991, work was ongoing to develop a method of compressing digital audio into much smaller files than the equivalent size of a CD.  By the late 90’s, MP3s had become so popular that big name firms like Thomson, Sony and Panasonic began to produce portable devices designed to playback MP3 files that had been ripped from CDs or downloaded from the Internet.

An early Thomson MP3 player

The next decade saw a huge shift in the way people purchased and listened to music.  Now, I’m probably more likely to buy my music in MP3 format than to walk into a store and buy the CD.  It’s not a matter of cost, often you can pick up a CD for less than the MP3 album, I’m just too lazy and too impatient to brave the high street in search of a shiny piece of plastic.

But even if everyone buys their music online, there’s still going to be a market for games and video, right?

I’m not so sure.

With Internet connection speeds getting higher and higher, the amount of choice available to the average consumer is staggering.

All of the major games console providers offer some form of digital downloads so that gamers can get stuck in without a physical disk.  In fact, it’s actually a good way to stamp down on piracy; when you buy a game and download it, it becomes tied to your account.  You can’t just go round to your mates house and let them play it.

PC gamers have gotten into the mix as well.  There are several programs available to allow you to pay and play games online.  With several big games publishers requiring you to sign up for anti-piracy programs when you buy optical media, in can be a lot simpler to simply buy and download games from one of these sources.  That way, the game is tied to the account that’s registered with the online store, rather than to a specific computer.

It’s not just games either, there are two huge subscription based video streaming services available in the UK, which offer huge libraries of movies and TV shows for a very low monthly premium.  All you need is a PC or Mac, or a compatible games console, Smart TV, mobile phone or tablet device in order to get almost instant access to your favorite films.

We’re also starting to see a bit of a swing towards digital video that you can keep.  Think of it as an MP3 version of Blu-Ray.  The problem with this is that there is no predefined standard on which video format to use, and there’s also huge licensing issues, with the major studios reluctant to switch from DVD or Bluray to a system which could end up losing them a tonne of money if piracy becomes too rife.

That being said, music studios said the same about MP3’s in the early 2000’s, and now legitimate MP3 sales are a major stream of cash.  The same could happen with Hollywood, given enough time.

Personally, I can’t wait for a day where I can buy all of my media from online sources and download it to my home PC for safe keeping.  Not only does it allow me to shop around for the best deal, in many cases it would also save me time and effort.  What’s more, when buying using an online account you have a record of your purchase, so it’s often not a problem to re-download something should your original download be lost.

For those that aren’t so up for the idea, it’s a good chance that you’ll still be able to buy your media on optical disks for some time yet.  After all, MP3’s have been around for twenty years, and you can still buy CDs just fine.

Author

Matt

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