Frankly Speaking: The Dead CD-ROM

Frank Romano
Jan 14, 2011

Things change. Especially recorded media things. Remember floppy disks of all sizes, Zip disks, Syquest disks, and MO disks?

Then there was the Compact Disc, an optical disc used to store digital data. It was originally developed to store and playback audio recordings exclusively, but later expanded to encompass data storage. CDs have been commercially available since 1982.

In 1979, Sony and Philips Consumer Electronics set up a joint task force of engineers to design the new digital audio disc. The original research began independently by Philips and Sony in 1977 and 1975, respectively. In 1985, the “Yellow Book” standard developed by both companies adapted the format to hold any form of binary data.

Microsoft was a big CD supporter. “The New Papyrus” by Steve Lambert and Suzanne Ropiequet was published by Microsoft Press in 1986. This compendium of over 40 articles written by leading authorities provided an in-depth overview of the CD ROM for both professional and newcomer. There was an overview of CD ROM technology via articles on the hardware, system software, and retrieval software. One section focused on production techniques, including data preparation, data indexing, image capture and processing, and compressing and digitizing images. CD-ROM publishing was discussed and the applications described included market considerations, CD-ROMs in libraries, medical and legal applications, geographic applications, and archive and research applications.

You may recall the Microsoft Encarta multi-media encyclopedia.

The CD and its versions had worldwide sales of about 30 billion units in 2004. Almost all PCs came with a CD drive and the CD was how software was delivered. By 2007, 200 billion CDs had been sold worldwide.

By 2011, CDs will have been largely replaced by other forms of digital storage such as flash drives. We get our software over the Web. We store stuff in the cloud. Thus, CD sales have dropped nearly 50 percent from their peak in 2000.

And now, Sony Corp. plans to shut down a major U.S. CD-manufacturing plant. About 300 employees will be laid off once the Sony DADC plant in Pitman, NJ, is closed. Sony said it plans to shift CD-making operations to a facility in Indiana.

The music CD is almost a relic. The emergence of digital music and music players, as well as the rise of illegal file sharing, hastened the demise of the CD as the main music distribution format.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, U.S. music sales fell 2.4 percent in 2010 and digital track sales grew only 1 percent to 1.17 billion. But CD sales fared far worse. When it came to albums, sales of both newer CDs and catalog titles dropped by 16 percent and 23 percent respectively and these two categories also saw double-digit losses the previous year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The CD was a boon for the record industry. Record labels cashed in when music buyers replaced their cassette tapes and vinyl records with discs, and the CD also helped prevent unauthorized copying–at least initially. CDs also discouraged people from buying singles, forcing them to purchase full albums instead.

iTunes and App stores allowed us to buy what we wanted when we wanted it. The CD was just in the way.

This one plant closure is just another sign that physical media’s days are numbered. In addition to music, the film and book industries have their own digital transformations. Netflix and Apple are helping to fuel the emergence of Web TV. The Kindle and iPad are helping to drive consumer interest in e-books.

A 30-year run for the CD is not bad.

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