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Hail the CD before it disappears–in two ways!

The compact disk (CD), introduced in the United States just 24 years ago, revolutionized the music business. Many serious (or obsessive) music lovers ran out and replaced their entire vinyl or tape-based collections with these CDs. They invested thousands of dollars in this next, and supposedly final, way to store and transport their libraries.

Yet the CD is on the way out for this consumer application. According to music-industry market-research sources, sales of the CD as a music medium have dropped about 20% since last year. While these officially counted sales do not include the purchase of CDs for “personal” use in file sharing and ripping, it's still pretty clear that the CD role as a primary medium for music is fading fast.

So, have people cut back on their music listening? Of course not. The CD has been replaced, in large part, by non-volatile storage using flash memory and MP3 players and iPods. If anything, there's more music attached to more ears than ever before.

I'm not here to bemoan the loss of the CD as a music medium, just as I won't shed tears for the previous types of “be-all, end-all” media. We've had the vinyl LP, the eight-track tape, the Philips cassette tape, the CD, CD carousels, hard-disk-based systems, server-based systems, among others, each serving a niche and market need in a certain way. Many of these dominated the music-storage market, until they didn't any more. It's that simple.

The lesson here is that a storage medium which seems “forever” not only isn't forever; it actually has a fairly short life. I suspect that the rate of change will increase, as well, so the flash-centric formats we now find everywhere may be obsolete in a decade or so, who knows?

But there is some irony here as well, since the physical medium may deteriorate before the format is no longer viable. Commercially pressed CDs probably have a life of around 25 years, according to various reputable sources (polycarbonate and other plastics are not “forever”), but burned CDs have shorter life and are more susceptible to temperature and other storage extremes because of their use of a dye layer. The true lifetime of flash memory is also not known with certainty, and probably depends on the quality of the manufacturing process, ambient temperature, and other factors. So what was true for magnetic storage is also true for these new media: be careful what you count on for permanence, there is no such thing in high-tech storage.

So, is anyone interested in some 8-inch or 5-inch floppy disks, BTW? Or big reels of computer tape?

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