The CD-ROM drive's reign as the dominant removable-storage media has ended, according to market research reports from International Data Corporation (IDC) and the Japanese-based Magnetic Media Information Service (MMIS). Although PC makers routinely have been installing CD-ROM drives in virtually all desktop computers in recent years, MMIS analysts believe CD-ROM use has peaked and in the future, CD-R and CD-RW will supplant CD-ROMs.

According to an IDC study that corroborates such a perspective, the company anticipates that growth in CD-RW, magneto-optical, and combination drives primarily will drive optical-storage market growth. IDC reports that unit shipments of optical drives should reach 250 million by the year 2005. "Affordable CD-RW drives with the ability to record low-cost CD-R media will replace CD-ROM as the dominant removable storage technology," said Wolfgang Schlicting, IDC's optical-media analyst. "Their increased functionality and expected low prices will quickly absorb the current markets."

CD-ROM's demise also could lead eventually to the elimination of the floppy drive as a standard piece of computer equipment. So far, the 3.5" floppy drive has been a remarkably resilient storage media for good reason. Users still find it convenient for carrying small amounts of data, ranging from spreadsheets in progress to PowerPoint presentations they have to make offsite. Zip drives haven't been as pervasive as floppy drives, and the high cost of Zip disks has made them impractical for many uses. As a result, efforts to eliminate the floppy drive as standard equipment, starting with the ill-fated Next computer in the 1980s, almost always failed. Laptop-computer makers often have needed to include awkward removable drives to accommodate both CD-ROM and floppy drives.

The proliferation of CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD means that for the first time, users might have a cost-effective alternative to floppy drives. Not only does removable optical-media storage hold much more data than floppy disks, it's less prone to damage and as easy to transport as floppy drives.

But the shift to one removable-storage device on PCs won't happen overnight, and the transition won't be seamless. First, as MMIS notes, CD-R and CD-RW drives cost almost twice as much at the OEM level as CD-ROM drives. With PC manufacturers facing intense price pressure, many will continue to offer CD-ROM drives on their lower-priced systems.

Second, CD-R and CD-RW read speeds aren't as efficient as dedicated CD-ROM drives. Many PC manufacturers offer dual-drive systems, with a CD-ROM drive for reading information-intensive disks and CD-R and CD-RW drives for other applications. In fact, market research indicates that as many as 60 percent of the computers sold at retail are dual-drive systems.

Third, two consortiums of companies, one led by Philips Electronics and the other by Panasonic, are already promoting DVD-RW as the replacement technology for CD-R and CD-RW. The advantages of DVD-RW disks are clear. DVD disks can store as much as 9.4GB of information, compared to the 700MB of data that users can store on a CD-ROM—plenty of room for movies and other data-intensive material.

But as so often is the case, two different DVD-RW formats are competing with each other. The Philips Electronics-led group was the first to offer DVD-RAM. Panasonic countered the DVD-RAM effort by offering DVD-RW and enlisted the support of other companies (e.g., Apple, Hitachi). The two DVD formats differ in several respects, but the hottest point of contention is the need for compatibility with existing DVD players. Philips believes that compatibility is essential; Panasonic counters that its design is the more appropriate one for the corporate computing environment. Clearly, this format controversy could slow the adoption of the DVD technology while end users wait to see which solution will prevail.