Bring Back Physical Media

Created: Tue Dec 15 2020 11:59:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time) Tags: software,computing,music,complaints



My first computer (Apple IIe) used 5-inch floppy disks. If a program didn’t fit on a single floppy, you might need to spread it across multiples, but otherwise this solution was fine. Floppy disks could hold the application AND the user data, be easily backed up or shared, and storing them was easy enough. The computer was old when I got it, and the former owner included something like 500 programs on floppy disk, an endlessly discoverable mountain of software.

My next computer (90s era IBM clone) had multiple media drives, a 3.5-inch floppy drive and a CD drive. The floppies held more data than the old 5-inchers, and had all the same upsides. I could work on something at home, bring it to a computer at school and just keep going. The CD drive was a big game changer though. A CD can hold 700mb of data, and my hard drive at the time was 600mb. A really common pattern was to run software off a CD, but save your user data on floppies or hard drive. There was internet, initially in the AOL and later dial-up, but bandwidth was expensive and transfer speeds were slow. So slow.

My next computer, a G3 Graphite iMac, had an optical drive that could read and write CDs and read DVDs. I used to rent movies from the Blockbuster where I worked and watch them on the tiny CRT screen. This was in the Napster days, and burning CDs was a boon. I could make mixes for friends or girlfriends, or even share my own music. I burned a lot of CDs in those days. The 100gb hard drive was enough that I didn’t miss my floppy drive, plus we had the internet everywhere by then.

Then came the MacBook Pro, a beast of a machine with a SuperDrive (burns CDs and DVDs), USBs galore and even an SD card reader. I owned two incarnations of this machine, one of which is still in service to this day. Around this time, my college started using Iomega Zip Disks, although I never bought a drive for myself, I did own several of the disks.

Now I have two computers I switch between, but neither accepts any form of physical media beyond a USB stick without the inclusion of an external drive. The Mac (my reluctant work machine), can’t even use these without a dongle. These computers are designed to rely on the internet as a means of installing programs and sharing data, which obviously works fine since everybody in the world is doing it that way.

So what?

I miss removeable physical media. I miss having a drawer of disks or CDs. Yes, I can still burn CDs, and do, but the subtle advantages of physical media are hard to fully grasp without an ecosystem.

In high school, every kid had a CD book in their backpack. We would ride the bus on field trips and look through each other’s collections to listen to them on the way. I discovered a lot of great music this way. I guess you could look through someone’s iTunes library or Spotify history, but it wouldn’t be the same.

On the same note, a lot of my early musical tastes were formed by listening to my parents old records. I can play songs I like for my children, but without a physical media library they are unlikely to discover my music on their own, especially without album art. I remember seeing the cover of Eat A Peach and thinking that I really wanted to listen to it.

As a parent I have a lot of pictures of my kids, many of which are precious to me. We’ve printed some out, stored others on a SSD, and the rest are in the cloud. Yes, we could print more/all of them, but we all know this is no longer the norm, and I’m probably never going to meander through the folders on our storage drive the way I used to through old family albums.

I think there was a lot of value in being able to run software directly off a CD instead of kludging up your internal storage with installed apps or relying on the cloud. Most software today is designed with the assumption that you have lots of memory, lots of storage and lots of cloud access. Can I even run a MacOS app directly off a CD? Maybe I should try. Look at your own Applications folder and tell me you really need all that installed on your machine. How easy is all that to uninstall if you want to? How big of a SSD would you actually need if you only stored your user data on your machine? How much less worried would you be about security if your computer didn’t require internet access to function? If, in 10 years I want to fire up an old computer or phone, could I even get software onto it?