The end of CDs: a win for FOSS?

While waiting for the imminent release of PCLinuxOS 0.94 I started wishing for a usb flash drive to back up my /home data. I usually just buy the Live CD, but I then started to think, what I'd really like to have is the OS come on a flash drive. No installation would be necessary, just plug it in and use. Then in an epiphany (a flash even), it became clear, the end of CDs is near.

And when I say CD I don't just mean regular old 700 MB compact disks, I also mean DVDs, and new Blue-ray and HD DVDs optical disks too (whose capacities are already exceeded by the largest flash drives). In fact, I see a world in the near future (5 years?) where, like the floppy, optical disks will take their place in the museum of yesterday technology. Now I know Sony, Phillips, et al might not like to hear this, but the logic is unassailable (and its consequences inexorable), and the logic goes something like this.

CDs started out as a replacement for records (albums) to digitally store and distribute music. And with the CD begat the need for the CD player. And things were good, and the music industry (and equipment makers) made a ton of money reselling content they had recovered the cost of production of decades before.

Then the computer industry realized that compact disks were really just another way to store lots of bits cheaply, and thus begat the use of CDs to store and distribute software and data. And with this need begat the ubiquitous CD drive in PCs.

But for all the benefits optical disk storage bring, they have an inherent Achilles heal -- they require a mechanical optical drive to play them with. And being mechanical means they embody the innate deficiencies of such things (size, weight, power, fragility, etc). And like the floppy before it, CDs ultimately just provide a standard, relatively cheap, means to provide easy transportable storage for data. But now the CDs time too is coming to an end.

Flash drives are the emerging king of mass PC storage. Not only will flash memory technology transcend the application of optical disk storage, it will transform the future look and use of the PC, and this will profoundly affect the distribution and use of FOSS.

For when you break it down, all a PC is is an operating system, nonvolatile memory to store the OS and programs on, ram memory to run programs in, interface devices to provide for human interaction (keyboards, mice, etc), a screen interface, and external device (printers, et al) interface capabilities.

Thus, the PC will become just a standard chassis that provides a base for the cpu, ram memory, peripherals, and screen. It can include nonvolatile (flash) memory too, but for most people, they will just stick in their own flash drive and be instantly up and running with whatever OS, software, and data they choose to have on it. And when this happens FOSS will dominate the software landscape. Because when the separation of the hardware from the software becomes explicit people will then make smarter decisions to optimize both. At this point commercial/proprietary software will have to compete on an equal footing with FOSS to get on people's flash drives. That's a battle I think FOSS will generally win.

In my mind the inevitability of this was a foregone conclusion. And sure enough, it just so happened, the day after I initially wrote these thoughts down for this blog I came across an announcement about the Turbolinux "wizpy". Man, was this serendipitous, or what?

So very soon, instead of downloading an ISO and burning CDs, and then installing the distro from the CD onto a harddisk (or flash drive) to use, DRY (don't repeat yourself – to borrow a Ruby/Rails idiom). You'll just get the distro on a flash drive to begin with and run it off that. Then, all those CD filled magazines will come instead with little flash drives which you can immediately use with any computer – Mac, PC, or whatever. Yes, a better day is on the horizon.

So before you go out and blow a paycheck on that new Blue-ray or HD DVD player you might want to wait awhile. Flash technology will change the form and face of all data storage and distribution, with FOSS (and us) being a big winner in the process.


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