Apple's Annoying Way of Delivering the Future We Really Wanted

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The company's habit of killing off technologies before they're really dead is inconvenient, but Cupertino is playing the long game.

no-firewire-615.jpgWikimedia Commons/Brian Fung

There once was a time, eons ago, when people transferred files and folders from one computer to the next not by syncing devices on a network, nor even by sending them through the tubes of the Web, but by passing around little spinning magnetic records encased in plastic shells. To get at the data stored inside, you had to stick them inside a machine called a disk drive. Sometimes, the drive was an entirely separate device from your computer, and it'd be connected to your PC by a thick cable. Nowadays, floppy drives see more use as musical instruments than as information readers, but at one point in technological history, they were ubiquitous.

It seemed like a radically dumb idea at the time, but Apple -- as was its wont -- struck out on its own by eliminating floppy drives from its products altogether in 1998. That marked the beginning of the end for the storage format. Although the technology stuck around far longer than it deserved, by the turn of the millennium, floppies had largely gone extinct.

Fast forward a decade, and it's clear Apple's retained a fancy for killing off outgoing technologies that the rest of us think still have some life in them. In the latest update to the company's notebook line, Apple does away with physical DVD drives and spinning hard disks, the latter being replaced by small, ultra low-power solid-state drives with no moving parts. The new version of Apple's operating system, OS X Mountain Lion, won't be installable on most Macs built before 2007.

At some level, Apple's interventions aren't unusual. Most tech companies will encourage consumers to upgrade to newer technologies when and if they can. But they'll usually make the older, cheaper alternatives widely available to those who want them. By contrast, Apple's approach is much more forceful, a testament to its vertically integrated supply chain and its insistence on design consistency. Want to watch DVDs on your brand-new MacBook Pro? You'll have to go to major lengths to do it. No exceptions.

Much as that sounds like a raw deal, Apple's mild paternalism might be defended as a good thing. By getting us to abandon technologies before we're emotionally ready to pull the plug, Apple has effectively accelerated the rate at which we adopt new ways of doing things. For years, filmmakers and other creative professionals favored Apple's FireWire technology over USB, thanks to the incredible speed at which it could transfer data. FireWire was even baked into Apple's first set of iPods, back when iPods were a new thing. The company began phasing out the standard in 2008 -- over the loud protests of digital artists. Many complained that it wasn't time, and they were right. At that point, nothing else on the market could beat FireWire. But then Apple introduced Thunderbolt, a standard the company boasts is 12 times faster than even the fastest version of FireWire and 20 times as fast as the universally-recognized USB 2.0. New Macs now come standard with Thunderbolt.

The act of arbitrarily ending support for a technology might not have made much difference during Apple's doldrums, when Windows computers dominated the market. But that's all changed. Mac market share is better than ever, and more importantly, Apple commands a cultural presence rivaled only by its top competitor, Google. Now, every purchase of a new Mac is one more step toward the death of DVDs. It's one more step toward the end of clunky hard drives with moving parts. The assimilation of thousands into a drive-less future may not be totally voluntary, but it is good. It moves the ball forward, ending demand for technology that will be dead in a few years anyway, while getting Apple's competitors to start thinking ahead, too.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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