by Martin Veitch

So farewell then, floppy disk, at the end of an error

Apr 25, 2010

It was interesting to see the news that Sony is to pull manufacturing of 3.5-inch floppy disks in Japan — yet another reminder of the changing ways we use computers.

People talk a lot about the blinding pace of technology change but this just a throwaway mischaracterisation and even two decades ago the floppy disk seemed archaic. The capacity was tiny and a decent chunk of the 1.44MB maximum was excised in formatting. To load even a DOS program like WordStar 6.0 meant over a dozen disks and Sod’s Law said that disk nine or similar would be a rogue. Windows apps exacerbated the problem and as for operating systems…

The disks were easy to lose, a host for every virus going and, although they were game for keeping hundreds of word-processing files, they couldn’t store much in the way of images, never mind emerging multimedia formats such as audio or video. They were robust compared to their frail (and literally floppy) 5.25-inch antecedents although the spring-loaded head covers were very tempting to break through repeated fidgeting, like a Greek in church with worry beads.

They had a couple of advantages in terms of vast legacy support and as a boot-able medium but the principle of ‘sneakernet’ – swapping data by walking around with tiny disk in hand as it were – became anachronistic with the arrival of LANs, PC CD drives and phenomena such as Iomega Zip and ‘super floppy’ drives appeared. When magazines began to use CDs for cover-mounted giveaways (early versions would have perhaps 6MB or 7MB of material, leaving plenty of headroom) the writing was on the wall. By 2007, even PC World was pulling them from shelves and USB sticks had become the de facto product category for pocket storage.

The demise of the floppy also draws the curtains for the whole kit and caboodle of the mid-1990s PC when floppy sales were reaching their zenith. The CRT monitor is gone, as is the beige box it sat on. Instead we have LCD flat screens that are usually hinged to small-format devices. Who cares? PCs today cost a small fraction of the sum and are enormously more capable.

It’s easy to laugh at the comically outmoded floppy but its rise and fall prefigures a narrative arc that befalls all computer technology. Even today’s Blu-Ray drives will be superseded although it’s quite possible that with wired and wireless communications now ubiquitous, the current generation of portable mass storage might be the end of the road as large data files float up to the cloud, backed up onto far larger virtualised disks and tapes that we will never touch and feel.

That move towards virtual storage will have at least one significant benefit even for non-computer users — those billions of floppy disks must be occupying a very large area of landfill.