Will Apple Kill the Optical Drive?

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Apple [AAPL] has big plans for 2011: the Lion OS, Mac App Store, iPad 2.0 and more mark the year it sees as 'Back to the Mac'. And it seems Apple's [AAPL] also close to fielding solutions implementing Intel's super-fast interconnect standard, Light Peak -- and seems potentially on course to eliminate optical drives, one product family at a time.

Fresh rumors emerged across the weekend which claimed Apple is on schedule to introduce new model MacBook Pro notebooks equipped with Light Peak interconnects in 2011, perhaps in April.

I can't comment on the veracity of the report, but would note that Intel has been expected to be in position to take the technology to market next year.

2011: We have lift-off

Intel is planning to supply the controller chip and is working with optical component manufacturers to make Light Peak components ready to ship in late 2010, and expects complete systems in 2011

Intel's Light Peak is a10Gbps optical interconnect technology developed as a one-size-fits-all replacement for things like USB, DisplayPort and HDMI. In future, the technology has the potential to reach speeds of 100Gbps.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

What's neat about Light Peak is its ability to handle multiple protocols at the same time -- so you can be running your display, your drives and filling up your iPad, all at the same time over the same interconnect. At least, this is the theory.

This makes the standard attractive in comparison to USB or FireWire. Light Peak also requires smaller connectors and thinner cables, and, because it is an optical technology, is capable of operating at longer distances than the competing interconnects.

MacBook Pro goes Air?

Apple was reportedly involved in development of Intel's Light Peak. The first public demonstration of the technology took place at the Intel Developer Forum in September, 2009, with Light Peak running on a modified Mac Pro.

Apple's MacBook Pro plans don't stop with Light Peak. It is also possible the company will begin to sell SSD-equipped MacBook Pros -- like the MacBook Air.

A report claims the new model MacBook Pros will be equipped with 512GB of SSD storage, and that they will not host an optical drive. Speculation claims they'll cost from $1,999 and will be like the MacBook Air, only much faster.

SSD's are already available as options on MacBook Pro notebooks -- you can specify the existing 15- and 17-inch models with up to 512GB examples.

The report also claims Apple has exclusive use of the new technology for a period. The company has a good track record of popularizing new technologies -- remember WiFi?

That Intel sees uses for Light Peak in mobile computing is clear on strength of the following comment from the VP of Sony's VAIO Business Group, Ryosuke Akahane, who said:

"Sony is excited about the potential for Light Peak technology that Intel has been developing, and believe it could enable a new generation of high-speed device connectivity."

Price challenges

Success of the standard in the wider market will depend on price. A report earlier this year suggested the components for implementing Light Peak in a device cost around $5.

This may be fine for a computer, but for hard drive manufacturers and makers of other peripherals, Intel will have to find a way to reduce cost of equipping devices with the port.

Should the firm fail to achieve this, then we'll simply see a range of Macs equipped with an interconnect nobody else is using.

That some work has been taking place to resolve any pricing problems is hinted by a statement supporting the standard available on Intel's website from peripheral maker, LaCie.

If the rumor is true, these MacBook Pro's will last longer, run quieter and be lighter and more power-efficient through the simple expedient of abandoning most moving parts from the systems.

I speculate it is possible Apple will likely offer its own external DVD player/burner for use with these new Macs. But why stop there?

Blu-ray for the people

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said he sees only a limited future for Blu-ray. However, there are still many who may want to make use of the standard -- particularly among Apple's high-end video customers.

It is possible therefore that an Apple-branded Blu-ray player/burning device (also capable of burning standard optical media such as DVD or CD) will appear next year.

Apple's belief that Blu-ray's future is limited means the company has so far failed to implement the technology within Macs -- a Blu-ray equipped iMac has been anticipated for two years.

Perhaps Apple sees a peripheral device as a better alternative, rather than forcing customers to pay more for their computer for the components required for Blu-ray -- a pyrrhic step for consumers who may not need the high-def video tech.

In any case, a Blu-ray-cum-optical media playback and recording device for the SSD MacBook Pro would represent a pretty good Light Peak-based peripheral to help launch the market...Perhaps it would be branded LaCie? That's also speculation, of course.

Are you being served?

In future, Apple is also expected to introduce a form of all-you-can-eat subscription service via iTunes.

Reports earlier this year implied this would be focused on video services, so it is possible Apple sees little need for optical drives in future Macs as it moves into position to offer Mac, iPad, iPhone and iPod owners always-on access to all the content they could need for a single set fee via iTunes, and all the apps they might need via the Mac App Store.

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This story, "Will Apple Kill the Optical Drive?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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