By the time a CD-RW drive arrived in the iMac, Apple had released another new product: the iPod. Just when CDs became viable—if single-use—tools for data storage, Apple flipped the medium’s obvious use on its head: just a way to get content onto another, smaller handheld computer. Even today, when people create things with computers, they tend to do so inside the walled gardens of apps, social networks, and other online services.
The retirement of the optical drive also had implications that were harder to see at the time, not to mention unrelated to the stated purpose of thinness and lightness. A decade ago, software, music, and movies were still frequently distributed on optical disks. Thanks to standards like CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray, that meant that anyone could make such media. And once someone took possession of a physical disk, it could be used over and over again with compatible hardware. It was owned and therefore could be resold, lent, or donated. The result was a diversity of creative contexts and distribution channels, along with a natural means for archival and preservation.
But once the optical disk became an optional accessory, the stage was set to move all media and software distribution to online services. iTunes had been selling music online since 2003. Netflix had just begun streaming movies and television on demand in 2007. Apple had just launched the iOS App Store in 2008, and the Mac App Store followed in early 2011. The company reviews and approves (or declines) every title that appears on the storefront.
In 2012, Apple introduced Gatekeeper, a security feature of the Mac’s operating system that, in its default setting, prevents users from running software that hasn’t been distributed via the App Store or code-signed by an Apple-registered developer (a privilege that costs $99 per year). Created to limit the spread of malware, Gatekeeper has the side-effect of making it difficult to run programs that Apple hasn’t explicitly authorized as legitimate. It’s still possible to distribute programs by direct download (or by flash drive), of course, but the more app store proliferated, the less obvious and trustworthy such methods become.
And simultaneously, those apps become ever more evanescent. Thanks to the frequent updates required to move profitable iPhones, the App Store is littered with old software that doesn’t work. Some of it is abandoned, but others couldn’t find viable businesses on a platform that pushed prices down to zero, even as software and hardware updates made constant maintenance obligatory. Last week, Apple quietly notified developers that it would begin testing and removing apps that are non-functional or “outdated.”
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It would be ridiculous—and it would give Apple too much credit—to imply that the company planned some elaborate conspiracy in 1998 or 2008 or even 2016 to control its users’ thoughts and ideas in the near- and far-future. The floppy disk’s removal didn’t cause the transformation of computers into consumption devices. Likewise, the optical disk’s disappearance didn’t underwrite the rise of top-down streaming services and centralized app stores and subscription-facilitated downloads.