The Future of Optical Discs

WHITE PAPER – The Future of Optical Discs

By Roger Hutchison
President, CD ROM, Inc.

February, 2012*

 Click here for the article in PDF format

It’s ironic that the head of an optical disc company would even pose the question: “Are optical discs dead?” It is a fair question, however, and one that I am asked quite often.  Of course, before I respond, I must say there is no crystal-ball certainty in the comments that follow. They should best be considered within the context of a Delphi-like observation from, if not an industry expert, an industry observer.

From its origins as a data version of a music CD disc, CD-ROM entered the computer world thought process in 1986.  Slowly, drivers were written permitting the operating system of the early personal computers to recognize a foreign device connected to it and thus MSCDEX was born, the MS DOS CD ROM extensions.

CD-ROM technology was a technological revolution. Early uses of CD discs included exploiting the capacity of these small, shiny wonders, which could store a whopping 300,000 pages of information.  

  • In 1988, the Army Corps of Engineers opted to use the medium to store massive amounts of information that needed to be analyzed as part of a project to close a military base. The project was led by Dr. John Belshay, who was instrumental in using this technology and, in part, paved the way for its early adoption.

Over in Reston, Va., a geologist named Jerry McFaul had a vision and saw how this valuable new storage medium could benefit the US Geological Survey. The USGS is responsible for tremendous amounts of information and in the pre-Internet era, dissemination by CD media proved to have distinct advantages over paper.

  • Jerry McFaul and Duane Marquis in 1986 established a user group that was active for years called SIGCAT, or the Special Interest Group for CD Applications and Technology. This organization spawned numerous niche chapters, and optical discs saw an explosion of growth and through practical applications both in the government sector and in the commercial world.
  • Large projects like the genealogical project of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sought to place all known genealogical records on CD discs, which would then be made widely available at the church’s various regional centers.
  • Also at the time, the Defense Mapping Agency had what was believed to be the largest collection of CDs in the world with detailed maps and data collected from our observation satellite platforms.

In 1995 the “big fat CD-ROM,” better known as the Digital Versatile Disc or DVD, came onto the marketplace. While a CD could hold 700 MB of information, a single-layer DVD could hold nearly seven times that amount, a staggering 4.7 GB.

By 1996 there were an estimated 5 billion floppy discs in use.  In 2010, it is difficult to find a motherboard with floppy support. In 2009 there were only 12 million.  Sony announced the death of the floppy in 2010.   Since 2009, CD ROM drives largely have been replaced by multi-function DVD drives capable of reading and writing CDs, DVDs and the erasable CDs and DVDs known as CD- or DVD-RAM.

So, where are we going from here?  To answer that important question, a very short list of analysts and consulting firms track the optical disc recording industry.  Forefront in expertise in this niche analysis world is the Santa Clara Consulting Group.  The information below is taken from their reports available on their web site at and from previous analysis done by Lawrence Leuck, the founder of Magnetic Media Information Services, who passed away in 2008. 

In 2008, CD-R media amounted to a worldwide production of about 5 billion units. In 2009, that fell to about 4.2 billion. And in 2010, it was down to 3.3 billion. At the same time, production of CD writers slipped from about 13 million recorders in 2008 to virtually none in 2011. The production of DVD-R media, meanwhile, surpassed CD-R media in 2009 and continues to gain distance.

In 2008, about 180 million DVD recorders were produced. That fell to below 150 million in 2009, and down to about 145 million in 2010. In these same years, DVD-R media production went from nearly 5 billion in 2008, to about 4.5 billion in 2009, and to 4.1 billion in 2010.

From its first invention and release in 1995 by companies such as Philips, Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic, DVD sky-rocketed to be mainstream in the personal computer industry by the late 1990s.

Blu-ray optical discs entered the technology stage in late 2000 and by 2003 the first prototype players and recorders were introduced.  Blu-ray, now offering a new increment in storage capacity of 25GB once again increased the capacity of DVD by over a factor of five. While both standard DVD and Blu-ray had options for multiple layers and in turn increased capacity, the industry largely has stabilized in CD ROM to 700 MB, and in DVD to 4.7 GB and in Blu-ray to 25GB.  

So, are optical discs now dead barely five years from the release of the first Blu-ray and about 25 years since CD ROM was born?  It depends on if you believe dinosaurs are dead or that they live on in the genetic code of birds.

It is inevitable in an age of high-speed Internet, cloud computing and online video on demand that the commercial entertainment market segment, which is by far the largest market segment for optical discs, will continue to see a decline in worldwide production.  At the current rate of decline, CD-ROM media will be obsolete in 5 years or less, followed soon after by DVD, with both media-types replaced by Blu-ray media.  However, it is fair to say that optical discs will continue to be of use in the near to medium term (3-8 years) as a means of storing and distributing entertainment media, such as music and movies, which do not require the large capacity of Blu-ray discs. Optical discs also will be of continuing use for storing sensitive or important information such as legal, medical or security-sensitive data, meaning both CD and DVD formats likely will survive for some time even after the industry discontinues production.

Where we are going in the future is evolving as optical, magnetic and solid state technologies develop to provide even higher capacity, such as the imminent holographic DVD format and the rapidly growing technologies for USB and SSD drives. Indeed, the industry remains one that is exciting and well worth the efforts to pursue its advancement.

Note:  Any inaccuracies in this paper are the sole responsibility of the author and are unintentional. Comments can be sent to

*First published on 11-1-11 as ‘Are Optical Discs Dead’

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