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Optical drive sector faces greater danger than EU probe

The European Commission has never shied away from flexing its regulatory muscles where it perceives consumer injustice to exist, as both Microsoft and Intel can attest (both have been hit with billions in fines over the years). But, as we reported this morning, the optical disc drive (ODD) industry is now being targeted.

That almost seems cruel, or at least a little redundant when you factor in that ODDs already have one tray in the grave. Still, no matter how bloodied and bruised the ODD segment is, it doesn’t give peripheral makers and suppliers the right to artificially drive up prices, and that’s essentially what European Union regulators believe has taken place.

Thirteen ODD players are under investigation for possibly running afoul of EU antitrust rules. The Commission suspects the dirty baker’s dozen allegedly acted as a cartel and “engaged for at least five years in bid rigging, which is one of the most serious breaches of EU antitrust laws.” If they are ultimately found guilty, the EU will impose a fine of up to 10 per cent of each participant’s annual worldwide turnover.

Hey pops, what’s an optical drive?

The EU’s investigation into price fixing shenanigans is all well and good, but are optical drives doomed anyway? MacBook Airs, ultrabooks, and hybrid tablet/notebook PCs such as Asus’ Transformer range are fast becoming the de facto standard in mobile computing, and only a small percentage of them sport an optical drive. Dell’s Inspiron 14z comes to mind as one of the few exceptions to the ultrabook rule, but for every 14z, there’s a dozen models that don’t have room for a spinning disc.

Going forward, it would seem optical drives don’t stand a chance. They’ve lost their grip on the mainstream and are sprinting towards obsolescence. There are plenty of reasons why, and it starts with the cloud.

In days gone by, rewriteable CDs and DVDs were great for storing buckets of photos, but then came Photobucket. And Flickr, and SmugMug, and Google Drive, and… the list goes on. Nearly 50 million photos are uploaded to Flickr alone each month, and images were just the start of our move to the cloud. Now our mass storage, games, music, and videos live there as well.

Blame Netflix and Microsoft

Streaming services like Netflix and Lovefilm are also playing a part. Just like Blu-ray and Sony obliterated the HD-DVD format, streaming videos and widespread broadband (and the progressing roll-out of super-fast fibre) have ganged up on Blu-ray and, by extension, PC optical drives. Movie stores and the likes of Blockbuster are suffering further, as folks happily turn to Netflix to conveniently pipe movies through their internet connection, into their living room, and onto their tablets.

If early reports are true, Microsoft will ditch full retail boxed copies of Windows 8 in stores and only offer upgrade and OEM versions to retailers. As Windows 8 rolls closer into view, Microsoft has begun pushing digital downloads harder than ever before, tempting upgraders with a Windows 8 Pro download promotion.

All this is to say that optical drives are less important than ever, and while EU regulators get ready to spank over a dozen ODD players desperately clinging to relevance, the biggest blows may have already been dealt.