With the MacBook Air refresh, Apple introduced the concept of installing the OS via a packaged thumb drive, leading us to speculate that Apple would make the transition from DVD to a new digital format with the distribution of Lion. John Brownlee from Cult of Mac reporting on AppleBitch notes that Apple may hold on to optical media a little bit longer, possibly offering consumers the choice of both disc and digital formats when they purchase a new copy of Lion to update their Macs. It’s possible Apple will continue to sell optical discs in stores (while bundling all new Macs with a copy of Lion on a thumb drive) as they transition away from optical media, and Brownlee notes that the speculation comes as a result of the disc version of Lion having shown up in Amazon of Germany’s listings.
You could ship Lion exclusively on thumb drives, but the biggest problem I see is in ditching the disc completely is cost. While thumb drives are inexpensive to produce, I’m making the assumption that the costs for producing optical media are cheaper, and as long as the current MacBook and Mac line of Apple computers still have an optical reader, there’s no reason not to utilize it. However, MacBook Air owners wanting to upgrade will either have to purchase the SuperDrive or install Lion from another Mac remotely if Apple doesn’t provide the option of selling the thumb drives on their own. Who knows? Maybe they’ll sell both as a part of this crazy transitional phase.