So When Does Apple Do Away With Hard Drives?

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My Technologizer column this week is about the new direction that Apple is taking Macs–which is about bringing some of the simplicity of the iPhone and iPad to the 27-year-old Mac platform. The first chapter in that story is last week’s introduction of all-new 11.6″ and 13.3″ MacBook Air models–and the most striking thing about the new Airs is that all versions use solid-state flash storage instead of a hard drive, even though the starting price is now a much-lower $999.

Flash has multiple clear advantages over a hard disk:

  • It takes up less space, when used as Apple is using it–it solders the chips right on to the motherboard;
  • It’s faster (Photoshop CS5 loads in about three seconds on the Air I’m using, vs. up to ninety seconds on my MacBook Pro);
  • It has at least some positive impact on battery life;
  • It’s much less likely to die on you.

It also has a couple of disadvantages:

  • It’s far more expensive (the $999 Air has a tiny 64GB of storage, and even the top-of-the-line version has only 256GB);
  • As Apple is using it, it isn’t consumer-upgradable (although hard-drive upgrades are no longer easy with any MacBook–I miss the days when you could replace a MacBook disk in five minutes).

It’s no shocker that flash (not to be confused with Flash) appeals to Apple–it’s the simpler, more elegant solution, and it helps Apple make simpler, more elegant computers. The cost is not as crippling an issue as it once was–especially since Apple doesn’t want to build a $500 Mac anyhow–and the company was already comfortable with the fact that Windows PCs usually sport way more storage at any particular price point. (My $575 Asus notebook has a 512GB disk.)

For all these reasons, it’s surely only a matter of time until all Macs dump hard drives for flash storage. Apple’s press release about the Air all but states this directly:

Apple® today unveiled an all new MacBook Air®, the first of a next generation of notebooks which will replace mechanical hard disks and optical drives with Internet services and solid state flash storage.

The “Internet services” part of that sentence is intriguing, given that Apple hasn’t yet released much in the way of Web-based offerings that can help Mac users live well with less storage. Apple TV may be a diskless wonder that streams movies and TV shows over the Internet as needed, but buying entertainment from iTunes on a Mac still involves downloading and storing gigabytes of stuff. It’s one of the primary reasons why 64GB, 128GB, and even 256GB are relatively tight quantities of space.

So when does Steve Jobs stride onto a stage somewhere in the Bay Area and announce that all Macs–or at least all mobile Macs–are now disk-free? I’m not going to predict a date, but I think two basic factors need to be realities:

  • Apple needs to be able to incorporate 512GB of flash into its high-end models at a price point that isn’t completely nutty;
  • iTunes needs to be usable in a mostly or entirely cloud-based mode, so it’s possible to have a large collection of entertainment that doesn’t require much local storage.

Any guesses about timing? And when it happens, will you take it as good news or bad news?