Arts & Culture/Twilight of the CD? Pitt’s Ahmed Amer Sees It Coming But Not Quite Yet

Issue Date: 
September 17, 2007


                                   Ahmed Amer 

Twenty-five years after the compact disc crept onto the commercial market, the plastic storage device with the rainbow sheen has evolved from being a novelty to one of the more versatile commercial products ever, as well as a linchpin of the digital revolution. Originally intended to record music, the CD—cheap, simple, and with impressive storage capacity (583 times that of a 3.5-inch floppy disk)—was the ideal vehicle for storing and distributing various digital media, from films and novels to encyclopedias and computer programs.

But twilight is falling on the CD’s long reign, says Ahmed Amer, a computer science professor in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences. New technology has come along to trump the CD for durability, reusability, and capacity. No CD can match the iPod’s 40,000-song, play-it-anywhere capacity, for example.

Pitt Chronicle staff writer Morgan Kelly interviewed Amer about the CD’s future.

PITT CHRONICLE: What gave CDs such staying power?

AMER: CDs debuted as a way to digitally record and distribute music, but they are essentially a storage medium for digital data. They were simple and convenient. They became more useful as movies, photography, and other media became digitized. In fact, the basic CD has not had any fundamental change in capacity since its introduction. It was the technology to read and encode them that became more robust. CDs were useful at the right time and remained so, thanks to the way content and data changed.

Was the CD really the superior technology?

CDs are an example of practicality and usability outweighing pure technical performance. There was a fair degree of disillusionment with CDs, particularly when people realized that they don’t actually last forever. But the most popular technology is not always the best technology.
Digital Audio Tapes (DAT) and MiniDiscs were advertised as CD-killers in the mid-’80s and early-’90s. They were digital, in some ways more durable, and could be rewritten, but they failed to replace CDs. Audio CD players and CD-ROM drives had taken hold in the market. In spite of the CD’s deficiencies, its availability—and then the introduction of recordable and rewritable CDs—made it hard to replace. It was simpler to stick with CDs and come up with ways to improve their performance.

What threatens the CD now?

People don’t erase data anymore and they want more space. In 2006, a study by International Data Corporation, a technology market research and analysis firm, estimated that computer users generated more than 160 exabytes—that’s the number 160 followed by 18 zeroes—of raw data. That amount has been compared to 12 stacks of books each reaching from the Earth to the Sun.
With music libraries and video files, we will soon need to back up computers to other computers. Digital music players and flash drives hold as much as 100 CDs, are smaller, and won’t scratch, so they are very appealing to the consumer. Computer hard drives are more portable. These technologies have caught up with and stripped the CD of its advantages. It’s becoming our day’s floppy disk. I still like my audio CDs, but they typically act as the backup to my main media library.

Does the rise of other digital devices mean the CD will vanish soon?

Not exactly. What determines a technology’s future is if it is cheap, convenient, and useful. CDs are still all of those. They are the cheapest backup medium for the home computer, the easiest way for some to physically move data, and the de facto method of publishing and distributing music. As long as a blank CD costs 10 cents to a quarter, I’ll still burn my holiday photos to it and send a copy to my friends and family. I can still burn a few songs to a CD and have music for a road trip. Plus, as long as it doesn’t break it will always be there. The idea that this shiny disc can save your music or home video forever is appealing, even if it’s not entirely true.

What is the CD’s legacy?

It is an icon of the mass adoption of digital technology. It wasn’t the first popular digital medium—floppies were digital—but it has been the most successful and, surprisingly, long-lived. The CD made digital media widely accessible and people embraced its flexibility. The DVD and its successors use the same basic form as the original CD. I don’t think that’s going to change for a long time.