What will Apple kill off next?

Apple is famous for either inventing, or popularising, innovative technology. The mouse, the trackpad, LCD monitors, Firewire, USB, unibody aluminium laptops ... the list is long.

Apple is also famous for summarily deleting tech when it decides it's time to move on, causing hand-wringing and cursing from the most effected users. This anger dissipates and eventually disappears as users come to realise Apple was right, and they're better off with whatever the replacement tech was. Mind you, sometimes Apple was 'right' simply because you wanted to stay with Apple, so there was no feasible alternative when you wanted a newer, faster computer.

There were terrible grumbles when new Macs first appeared without floppy drives. My very first Mac (this wasn't all that long after computers used cassette tapes as storage!) didn't even have a hard drive. If you wanted to use software other than the floppy-based operating system, you had to swap the system floppy and the software floppy in and out repeatedly in a crazy and frustrating shuffle.

But floppies became cheap and cheerful portable file storage when hard drives became more widespread, and many companies and individuals had cases and cases of them, all filed away. At first Mac floppies held about 400KB of data (1984) and then, a couple of years later, the double-sided drive allowed 800KB disks to be used. The 1.4M SuperDrive arrived in 1988.

The story goes that if you typed out Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace in Microsoft Word, the resulting file would be about a megabyte - so it wasn't until 1988 that you could fit War and Peace on a floppy, and on a Mac.

One thousand and twenty four torpid Russian novels - I mean megabytes - makes up a gigabyte. The pitiful storage available on a floppy seems crazy now with the proliferation of gigabyte drives; before too long it will be Terabytes (a Terabyte is 1021 gig) that we measure everything in.

Anyway, when the very first iMac appeared in 1998, gone was the floppy drive. This was the G3 'Bondi' all-in-one with the CRT. And that wasn't all. Steve Jobs' designers also deleted the SCSI interface most commonly used to connect scanners (but hid one cunningly inside the box itself). Also gone were the ADB ports (for keyboards and mice) and serial ports. All to save space and to move things along.

With the introduction of the USB (Universal Serial Bus) in the iMac, the ADB and Serial ports at least had been replaced. But the floppy drive? Nope. You could buy one as an external USB unit, and many did.

But this was the era of Jaz and Zip disc, and CDs that had become a lot cheaper (at first, although CDs held about 450 times more than floppy discs, they had cost $25 each. You'd go off to the shop and buy...one.)

Anyway, Apple knew best, although it seemed to be several years before PCs also deleted their floppy drives. In fact, even the most vocal of Mac moaners on the floppy disc deletion subject probably found themselves looking at PC users' floppies a couple of years later and saying, pointedly, "What's that thing? Oh, right, I remember those..."

Nostalgia trippers and the inveterately curious can read more about Apple's floppy drives at this SoCal site.

Apart from mucking about and seemingly redesigning display connectors nearly every year - mostly, from what I can tell, to make them smaller and more convenient - what's Apple going to delete next?

The answer's pretty clear: optical drives. It's already missing from the MacBook Air laptop, being one of the primary reasons for the Air's sleek and svelte form. "How on earth could you delete the optical drive?" People ask.

Apple is counting on the increasing use of wireless to move huge chunks of data around. After all, wireless 'n' is built into every Mac, and Apple has even teamed a big backup hard drive with a powerful wireless base station in the Time Capsule to back up entire hard drives over the atmosphere.

But how do you install CD and DVD borne software? Cleverly, a MacBook Air can use the optical drive in a wirelessly-connected Mac to install that software. But there's the rub - you still need a Mac with an optical drive in your network, so it's not exactly redundant. Yet.

What about playing DVD movies? Simple - download a rented or bought movie from the iTunes Store, no optical drive required.

But does that mean new iMacs may not have optical drives? Possibly. Think about it - the latest and previous iMac was a radical design, an all-in-one upright white polycarbonate or aluminium tablet that housed everything - monitor, hard drive, CPU, video card, RAM, optical drive. Take out the optical drive and you've already saved yourself a lot of space, heat generation, moving mechanical parts - and you've cut down the electrical power requirement.

Delete the hard drive as well, replacing it with solid state Flash-style tech, and what do you have? A lot more design freedom, that's what.

All eyes on the Macworld conference, then. San Francisco, January 5th.

This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald - http://blogs.nzherald.co.nz

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