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April 18, 2011

The Floppy is Dead, Long Live the Floppy!

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Some 40 years ago, the first floppy disk was developed as a form of removable, long-term computer storage. It’s finally about to die.

Starting in the early 00’s, major manufacturers started phasing out floppy drives on their PC consoles. The drives went from being optional to not even being mentioned in the ads.

While I’m sure you can buy floppy disks or a USB floppy drive today, I don’t think any manufacturer is out there building up inventory. In fact, sometime soon the day will come when the last floppy drive rolls off the line and the last floppy disk is cut from a sheet of mylar.

It wasn’t always that way.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, a floppy drive was it as far as computer storage was concerned. Everything was saved or provided on those thin, removable 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. They stored 180KB on one side, and if you had a dual-sided floppy drive, you could enjoy 360KB of storage.

The Macintosh made popular the 3 1/2-inch floppy disks, which could store 720KB on a disk or 1.4MB by using special high-powered science.

For the longest time, the floppy disk’s capacity was a limiting factor for computer storage.

For example, the original WordPerfect program was exactly 360KB in size. That way it could fit on a single floppy.

On a PC, drive letters A and B are reserved for floppy drives. Yes, you needed two drives to effectively manage your stuff. Using one drive was possible with disk swapping, but it was a pain in the rump.

Even today, all PCs have their primary hard drive lettered C because letters A and B are for floppies. In fact, if you find and plug in a floppy drive (even a USB drive), it’s automatically given drive letter A by Windows.

Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the floppy drive is the silly Save icon that exists in just about program and app. I mean, even the Gmail app on an Android phone uses a floppy disk icon for the Save command.

On a phone!

What surprises me is the amazing resilience of the floppy drive. There were many, many attempts to replace it, especially in the 1990s as file sizes increased and the limitations of a floppy disk’s capacity became obvious.

There were ZIP disks, LS-120 disks, Magneto-optical, tape drives — all sorts of nonsense. They were all proprietary, and because IBM was no longer the Big Dog in PC hardware development, and there was never a Big Dog to replace IBM, none of the alternative floppies ever caught on.

Today we have optical R/RW discs, as well as thumb drives and media cards. But still, there is no single replacement for the floppy drive, nothing that will ever challenge its long-lived popularity or capture its popular mojo. If something ever does come around, you can definitely tell because it’s visage will replace the floppy disk icon on the Save command. And it’s about time for that!

1 Comment

  1. Last year I had to get my Dad to mail me a floppy disk with drivers for XP, I’m not entirely sure what they were for, but whatever was on the disk didn’t help me fix my PC. (I think it might have been a basic recovery disk) I ended up getting a new PC. Apparently XP still looked for a floppy drive first, this PC did have a floppy drive in it, needless to say my new PC didn’t. I remember having to use ZIP disks when I was at university they filled up quickly as I was using Adobe Première to make a film, I got in trouble for using 2 GBS of storage on the university PC!

    Comment by chiefnoobie — April 18, 2011 @ 3:48 am

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