August 15, 2008 – Apple Computer introduces the iMac. It was a bold move, not just for its unconventional translucent styling but for what it didn’t include – a floppy drive. Within 5 years floppy drives disappeared from nearly all other personal computers and are a rarity today. But, that wasn’t always the case. For much of its life, the floppy disk defined the personal computer.
Floppy disks were invented by IBM in 1969 as a means to distribute microcode updates for their mainframes. However, they should be remembered as the invention that democratized computing. Once solely the domain of system administrators, storage management now became the responsibility of the individual user. Mainframe and minicomputer users, frustrated with the meager amount of disk quota, could now move files off of the system and hold them in their hands. At Columbia University, the legendary Kermit program was written specifically for this purpose.
This effect wasn’t limited to the mainframe/minicomputer world. In the 1980s, PCs were still a novelty. Not everyone had one. But, you didn’t have to. Just sit down at a friend’s computer, put in your floppy disk, and your files were ready and waiting for you. When you were done, you would save your work and take your disk home.
During these early days of PCs, many of the features we take for granted did not exist. Few machines were networked. Modems were not all that widespread. Hard drives themselves were not standard equipment on many platforms. But, any usable PC had a floppy drive (Machines that stored data on cassette tapes are outside of my definition of usable). So, the venerable floppy drive performed a number of roles:
Primary storage – Since not all machines had hard drives, the floppy was often the only means of storage. If you only had a single floppy drive, this could be a bit of a juggling
act at times since your OS, programs, and data were usually on separate disks.
Backup – Even if you were lucky enough to have a hard drive, you were wise to make extra copies of everything. The operating systems provided no protection against accidental deletion. The hardware was less reliable and one mistake during a system management operation could lead to catastrophe. My first disaster was due to a low quality disk defragmenter which crashed part way through leaving my hard drive a complete wreck.
After learning that lesson, I spent many an evening flipping through a tall stack of floppies. To this day, I still conduct periodic backups, though I have moved on to more
Program Distribution – When you purchased a box of software, the box was filled with floppy disks. Unlike now, these disks were identical to the ones you wrote yourself,
with the exception of the fancy printed label. This also meant that you had to make sure you didn’t accidentally overwrite your expensive new word processing program.
WAN – Forget email attachments. In those days if you wanted to send your
database of Star Trek episodes to your buddy in Kansas, your best bet was to write it to a floppy and let the U.S. Postal Service do the hard work of carrying it across the country. In theory, your 2400 baud modem could move a megabyte of data per hour, but with long distance in excess of 15 cents per minute, that could get expensive
quickly. Besides, who wanted their phone line tied up for that long?
While its latency was horrific, the throughput of floppies over USPS was quite impressive. If need be, you could send your buddy a box of 100 floppies and they would take the same amount of time to get there.
And before you go decrying the Environmental impact of this, note that the floppy disks were reusable. So, once your buddy had copied the files, he could overwrite them with
something else either for his own use, or send it back to you. Thanks to America Online’s pervasive mailing campaigns, no one ever had to purchase a new floppy disk after about 1992. If only we could extract such value from today’s spam!
LAN – So, you’re pounding away on your quarterly reports. Your boss just got a fancy new 24-wire dot matrix printer with Near Letter Quality. You’re such a peon that you don’t even have a printer. Never fear, copy your spreadsheet to a floppy, walk it down there, and print away.
We affectionately referred to this a SneakerNet. Crude as it sounds, there were never any drivers to configure or IP address conflicts. As long as your disk would fit in the other machine’s drive, it would work (provided you had the same software or knew how to use your program’s “print to file” feature).
Archive – Remember how I said hard drives weren’t very reliable? Well, they weren’t very big either. So, for the same reason as the mainframe users, PC users would move old data off onto floppies to be forever lost on a bookshelf somewhere.
Peer-to-Peer Sharing – Before there was BitTorrent, there was the shoebox full of games. I remember carrying one around as a kid when I would visit friends and
family. I would show them my favorites, they would do the same, and we would trade copies of each others’ disks. Fortunately, RIAA lawyers never showed up at these
Cross-Platform Interoperability – The MS-DOS floppy disk became somewhat of a standard for data interchange. Macs, Commodores, and even UNIX workstations
could be outfitted with software to read and write the “PC” format. Sometimes, these conversions would take place even if no DOS machines were in the mix.
I remember walking into the Eos lab at NCSU and taking advantage of the
University’s broadband to download this strange new operating system called
Linux. I copied the files to 7 floppy disks and took them home to install it.
So, why was such a great piece of technology abandoned? They were just too dang small! When your PC had 64KB of RAM, a 180KB floppy disk seemed big. But, as RAM and hard drive sizes grew, floppies just couldn’t keep up. By the mid 90’s, 4MB of RAM and 200+MB hard drives were common place. It takes a lot of 1.44MB diskettes to back up a 200MB hard drive and there wasn’t a lot of software that handled breaking up large data sets into small chunks. Commercial programs were starting to have 10+
User data was also seeing an explosion in space requirements. Spreadsheets and word processing documents were taking a back seat to pictures, music, and videos. This pushed the floppy from the “difficult” to “impractical” category.
There were other issues, too. Floppies were a bit slow to access. Data errors were common with different drive alignments and media of questionable quality.
Plus, the rewritable nature of floppies proved a detriment once the virus was introduced.
However, the greatest testament of the utility of the floppy disk is in its successors. It wasn’t replaced with a single technology, but rather a multitude of hardware for the
different roles the floppy filled. Zip disks seemed to be the obvious successor, but their proprietary nature, “click of death” reliability issues and relatively small size sent them to an early grave. SuperDisk LS-120s never really caught on for similar reasons. Jaz
drives were just too expensive.
The only heir apparent was the CD-R. But, by the time these became commonplace, so was the Internet. If I wanted to send a small file to a friend, an email attachment was much easier and cheaper. Their writing process was inherently different and required more preparation up front as the disk could only be written one time. CD-RWs allowed
rewriting, but were cost prohibitive.
By the time DVD-Rs hit the scene, everyone had broadband. With hard drive sizes now topping a terabyte, we are once again in the “too dang small” predicament with these
media. The only reasonable backup media for a home user is another hard drive.
I consider the floppy’s closest living relative is to be the USB flash drive. Like the floppy, these can be rewritten thousands of times. They make reasonable backup media for critical data. However, their cost is such that they are not disposable like floppies.
So, next time you are downloading a movie or installing a new operating system, remember our old friend the floppy. If you still have a floppy drive, stick a disk in it some time and feel that reassuring clunk as the disk is seated. Listen to the chugging and whirring as it reads the blocks one-by-one. Unlike the vacuum cleaner drone of a CD drive or the utter silence of broadband, the floppy makes it sound like it’s really doing something!