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R.I.P. for the In-Car CD Player, Replaced by the Cloud

The in-car CD player has enjoyed a 25-year run, but its demise is nigh. Really nigh. At the end of 2011, Ford will give the heave-ho to CD changers, and other manufacturers are likely to follow. That bulky object has outlived its usefulness. And the rapid disappearance of the single-disc player won't be far behind. With all the other options available for in-car entertainment, the CD is becoming an orphan format.

Amazon's music from heaven
Another nail in the CD's coffin is the Amazon Cloud Drive and Player, announced last Tuesday, which allows annual storage of five gigs of music for free (and 20 gigs with a single purchase of an Amazon MP3 album). Through the cloud, the music is accessible anywhere, including the car through an Android phone app. Other phone apps are needed quickly.

Interfaces of this type are likely to get very sophisticated very quickly, and erase any lingering memories of clunky and slow-to-cycle CD changers. Services like Amazon's make car-based hard drives instantly obsolete. And the cloud storage part of it is a challenge to Apple's iTunes to provide something similar.

Four more years?
The Car Connection predicts that 2015 will be the last year for the in-car CD, and that sounds about right. By then, today's high school seniors will be buying a lot of cars, and if there's one thing they're agreed on it's that the CD is an old-fogey format, long since replaced by the single-song download and music on smartphones.

The CD format is in wholesale retreat, with overall revenues plunging 16 percent in 2010, to $3.8 billion. Strategy Analytics predicts that in 2012 American consumers will for the first time spend more on downloaded music than on CDs.

Automakers want to reclaim the dashboard space taken up by the CD player, and replace it with ways to connect the driver's existing media players. That means audio-in mini jacks, USB connections, cradles for cell phones -- and apps like Pandora that bring in music from the cloud.

The versatile Ford Sync system set the pace for modern car entertainment, closely imitated by GM in its MyLink for Chevrolet (both use voice recognition, but the GM system has challenges). The 2011 Lincoln MKX has a "media hub" with not one but two USB inputs, as well as RCA jacks, and it won't be long before cars bristle with multiple inputs. If you really want to play a CD, no problem, you'll just plug in a portable CD player.

Not crying
Although I own thousands of CDs, I find myself quite dry-eyed about this development. I saw the writing on the wall a year ago and began importing my already digital music into iTunes. Some 46,000 songs later, I finally have a library I can carry around on a hard drive. The advantages of this over carrying around multiple CDs (which never liked hot car interiors anyway) are so numerous that I'd never go back. The obvious next step is uploading the music to the cloud, so I don't even need the hard drive.

The demise of the in-car CD player is part of a long continuum, but it's also radical change akin to dropping the disc drive in Apple computers. The eight-track player, introduced in 1963, brought personal music collections into the car, succeeding where 45-rpm record players had failed (they skipped). The cassette took over in the 1970s and enjoyed a long run, for a time co-existing in many car dashes with CD players. The very first car CD changer, the Sony DiscJockey, appeared in 1986 -- and retailed for a whopping $1,000.

It's time to say goodbye to all that, and turn audio CDs into Christmas tree decorations and sun catchers to hang from your rear-view mirror.

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Photo: Flickr/hellofish
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