I don’t know if it made the news or not, but apparently Apple refreshed the Macbook Pro line this week. Not a groundbreaking update, mind you, but more along the lines of a processor refresh and move back to ATI/AMD discrete graphics over the existing NVIDIA chips. There was also the unveiling of the new Thunderbolt port, based on Intel’s Light Peak technology. This new port is designed to be a high-speed data access pathway for multiple devices. For now, the Mac will use it for storage and DisplayPort. Remember this, you’ll see it again later.
There was a long list of rumored hardware that might make it in to the new units, from SSD boot drives to liquid metal cases to reduce weight. As with many far-out rumors, there was little fire behind the smoke and mirrors. One thing that I didn’t see in the rumor mill which has been generating some discussion the past few days was the inclusion of a Blu-Ray drive in the Macbook. People have asked for the high capacity drive to be an option on the Macbook for a couple of years now. Some people want the option to pop in an HD movie and watch away on their laptop. Others would love the opportunity to have a Blu-Ray burner and create their own content in Final Cut Pro to later burn to disc. Still others want to use that burner to archive large amounts of data and keep their drives nice and clean. The arguments say that it’s time for Apple to step into the now and include an HD optical option. They cite the fact that Apple was key in the formation of the Blu-Ray spec. While I can empathize with those looking for an internal Blu-Ray option for their shiny new Macbook, I seriously doubt that it’s ever going to happen. Why?
1. Blu-Ray competes with iTunes. For those of you that want to use your Macbook to watch movies in all their HD glory, your current option is to use iTunes to purchase or rent them. And that’s just the way Apple likes it. If Apple were to include a Blu-Ray option on the Macbook, it would cut into the sales of HD content on iTunes. Given the option to pay for wireless access at the airport and spend my time downloading a movie through iTunes and hope it gets pulled down by the time my flight takes off, or simply throwing a couple of Blu-Ray discs in my bag before I leave on my trip, I’ll gladly take the second option. It’s just easier for me keep my entertainment content on removable media that can easily be swapped and doesn’t need an external battery pack to operate. Plus, I’m the kind of person that tends to keep lots of data on my drive, so the available space for downloading those large HD movie files might not be available. However, Apple doesn’t make any money from my Blu-Ray purchases from Amazon. I think for that reason they’ll stick to the lowly DVD drive for the foreseeable future.
2. The future of the Macbook isn’t optical. When the Macbook Air was released in October, Tim Cook heralded it as “the Mac of the future”. While many focused on the solid state drive (SSD) providing the on-board storage or the small form factor, others looked at the removal of the SuperDrive and remarked that Apple was making a bold statement. Think about the last time you used a CD or DVD to load a program. I have lots of old programs on CD/DVD, but most of the new software I load is installed from a downloaded program file. Even the large ISO files I download are mounted as virtual CD drives and installed that way to expedite the setup process. Now, with the Mac App Store, Apple is trying to introduce a sole-source repository for software like they have on the iPhone/iPad/iPod. By providing an online software warehouse and then removing the SuperDrive on their “newest” laptop, Apple wants to see if people are really going to miss the drive. Much like the gradual death of the floppy drive, the less people think about the hardware, the more likely they won’t miss it if a computer company “forgets” to include it on cutting edge models. Then, it’s a simple matter to remove it across all their lines and move on to bigger and better things. At this point, I think Apple sees optical drives as a legacy option on their laptop lines, so going to the length of adding a new technology like Blu-Ray would be taking a technological step back for them. Better to put that R&D effort into newer things.
3. Thunderbolt creates different options for storage. Notice the first peripheral showcased alongside Thunderbolt was a storage array. I don’t think this was coincidental when considering our current argument. For those Blu-Ray fans that talk about using the drive to burn Final Cut-created movies or data backups, Apple seems to be steering you in the direction of using direct storage attached through their cool new port. Having an expandable drive array attached to a high-speed port negates the need for a Blu-Ray unit for backups. Add in the fact that the RAID array would be more reliable than a plastic disc and you can see the appeal of the new Thunderbolt technology. For you aspiring directors, copying you new motion picture masterpiece to a LaCie Thunderbolt-enabled external drive would allow you to distribute it as simply as you could on a Blu-Ray disc without needing to worry about having a file size limitation of the optical media. For what it’s worth, if you go out and price a Blu-Ray burner online you’ll find that you can get an external RAID array for almost the same price. I’d recommend the fine products from Drobo (don’t forget to use the coupon code DRIHOLLING to save a little more off the top).
As you can see, I think Apple has some very compelling reasons for not including a Blu-Ray drive on their Macbooks. Whether it be idea that optical discs are “old” technology or the desire to not include competition for their cash cow, Apple doesn’t seem compelled to change out their SuperDrive technology any time soon. But if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about getting the Blu-Ray blues any time soon. With the way things are going with app stores and Thunderbolt storage arrays, in a few years you’ll look back on the SuperDrive in your old Macbook with the same fondness you had for the 5 1/4″ drive on your old Apple II.