The Death of the Floppy May Be Overstated

In the closet just over there I have two boxes of floppy disks, carefully organized and labeled. Some of it is stuff I may need again: data files, pictures from the early days of digital imaging, documents from previous jobs, old resumes, and the like. Others have stuff I probably won’t ever use again, like the 16-disk installation library and three service packs for OS2/Warp 2.0, but find myself reluctant to discard (maybe I’ll load it up on my test computer on a rainy day just to see how it performs on a P3).

I would compare the boxes of floppies to old books and papers that I expect I might need sometime, but don’t actively use. The only time in the past two years I’ve used one of them about a year ago, when I dug out DOS 6.2 Disk One so I could boot to DOS and format the MBR of a hard disk that I had messed up.

Floppies have indeed pretty much disappeared from most home and business use; mostly yawns mixed with a little nostalgia greeted the report last week that was going to stop making floppies. The USB thumb drive delivered the coup de grace, replacing the floppy’s use in sneakernet.

Nevertheless, the floppy may not be as dead as we think. The BBC reports that Verbatim sells millions of floppies a year in the UK and Europe and wonders where they are and wonders who’s buying them. An excerpt:

The vast desks that control the light shows and sounds settings in theatres or music venues have until recently come with floppy drives as standard; the English National Opera is just one example of an organisation that uses them.

A volunteer at the National Museum of Computing says that many scientific instruments – so-called dataloggers, oscilloscopes and the like – record their data onto floppies.

This kind of expensive equipment is made to last, to be bought infrequently – and these gadgets may call for at least a few floppies in their lifetimes.

But these relatively niche uses couldn’t possibly account for the number of floppies – something like a million a month – that are being consumed in the UK alo

The answer may simply be that there are a great many old computers that read only floppies, and a great many computer users that have no need for the storage media that have supplanted them in other quarters.

I wonder the author of the article has ever actually used a 3 1/2 inch floppy. He says early in the article (emphasis added):

The truth is the 3½-inch, 1.44 megabyte floppy – the disk that made it big – has always defied logic. It’s not floppy for a start. The term was a hangover from its precursor, the 5¼-inch floppy, which had a definite lack of rigidness about it. However, its smaller successor held 15 times as much data.

This is a rather massive fail in basic research.

The first commenter corrects him, pointing out that the housing is rigid, but the disk inside is not. Furthermore, the 1.44 MB floppy held about four times as much data, not 15 times as much, as a the 360 kB 5 1/4 inch floppy. Indeed, the first generation of 3 1/2 inch floppies held about twice the capacity–720 kB–as the 5 1/4 disk. The 1.44 MB disks were identified with an “HD”–“High Density”–on the housing. For a number of years, both sizes were available side-by-side in the store.

How many persons remember 8-inch floppies?

When I started my working career in the complaint department of a major national company, management decided to test a Lanier word processing system in my department in, I think, 1977 (It was before 1978, because it was before we moved across town to a new building). We dialed up the machine on the phone and dictated correspondence, where the dictation was stored on 8-inch floppies. Typists would transcribe the dictation into letters and bring them to us for proofing and signing.

The test wasn’t very successful. Dictating the letters introduced additional errors because none of us were trained in giving or taking dictation. The increased time devoted to corrections wiped out any time saved by not hand-writing the drafts.

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