The end of the floppy disk era

An article in this week’s New York Times decries the end of the floppy disk. Its use as a medium of data transfer for Japanese government reports has finally been replaced with online data transfer. I read the piece with a mixture of sadness and amusement. The floppy was a big deal — originating from IBM’s big iron. It became the basic fuel of the PC revolution.

Before we had PCs, in the late 1970s, we had the first dedicated word processor machines coming into offices. I came of professional age  when these huge beasts, often built-in to office furniture. They were the domain of the typing pool of secretaries that would transform hand-written drafts into typed documents. These word processors had printers and ran off 8″ floppies that held mere kilobytes of text files. Those larger disks were a part of America’s nuclear control bunkers up until 2019 or so.

But back to the 1980s. Then IBM (and to some extent Apple) changed all that with the introduction of 5″ versions that were attached to their PCs. Actually, they measured five and a quarter inches. Within a few years, they became “double-sided” disks, holding a huge 360 KB of files. To give you an idea of this vast quantity of storage, you could save dozens of files on a single disk. But things were moving fast in those early days of the PC — soon we had hard-shell 3.5 inch floppies — the label remained, even though the construction changed — that could hold more than a megabyte of data. Just imagine: today’s smart watches, let alone just about any other smart home device — can hold gigabytes of data.

You would be hard-pressed to find a computing device that has less capacity these days. And that is a good thing, because today’s files — especially video and audio — occupy those gigabytes. But I just checked: a 5,000 MS Word file — just text — is only 35 KB, so things haven’t changed all that much in the text department.

The double-sided label sticks in my mind with this anecdote. The scene was a downtown office in LA, where I worked for the IT department of a large insurance company in the mid-1980s. We occupied three office towers that spanned several blocks, and part of the challenge of being in IT was that you spent a lot of time going around the complex — or at least for the times — debugging user’s problems. We would often tell users to send us a copy of their disk via interoffice mail and we would take a look at it if it wasn’t urgent. Soon after I got this call I got the envelope. Inside were two sheets of paper: the user had placed his floppy disk on the glass bed of their Xerox copier, and sent me the printouts. But this was a user who was paying attention: he noticed the “double-sided” designation on the disk, so flipped it over and made a copy of the back of the disk too.

The dual-floppy drive PC was a staple for many years: one was used to run your software, the other to store your data. The software disks were also copy-protected, which made it hard for IT folks to backup. I remember going over to our head of IT’s home one weekend to try to fix a problem he had with the copy-protected version of Lotus 1-2-3, the defining spreadsheet of the day.

Those were fun times to be in the world of PCs. The scene shifts to downtown Boston, at the offices of PC Week, back in early 1987. I had left the insurance company and taken a job with the publication. A few months into the job, I had gotten a question from a colleague who was having trouble with his PC, the original dual floppy-drive IBM model. I went over to his desk and tried to access his files, only to hear the disk drive grind away — not a sound that you want to hear. I flipped open the drive door and removed the offending disk. My colleague looked on with curiosity. “Those come out?” he exclaimed. No one at the publication had bothered to tell him that was the case, and he had been using the same physical disk for months, erasing and creating files until the plastic was so worn out that you could almost see through it. I showed him our supply cabinet where he could stock up on spare floppies.

Apple was the first company to sell computers sans floppies in 1998, and other PC makers soon eliminated them. Storage on USBs and networks made them obsolete.Sony would stop selling the blank disks in 2011, but they lived on in Japan until now.

Floppies were trouble, to be sure. But they were secure: we didn’t have to worry about our data being transmitted across the world for everyone to see. And while their storage capacity was minuscule — especially by today’s standards —  it was sufficient to launch a thousand different companies.

Self-promotions dep’t

Speaking of other things that have lived on in Japan, I recently wrote about the Interop show network and its storied history. I interviewed many of the folks who created and maintained these networks over the years, and why Interop was an innovative show, both then and now.

10 thoughts on “The end of the floppy disk era

  1. You brought back many memories. The first computer I used was an Apple II and I think you needed an external floppy drive for that. I remember the 8″, 5.25″ and 3.5″ hard-shell floppies. And I remember the contortions you had to go through to backup early (10MB!) hard drives to floppies. Fun memories, but I wouldn’t go back to those days.

  2. David, this is a great article and takes me down memory lane. During the era of floppy disks, you wrote an article about my company. This company was a savings and loan institution and one of the largest IBM installations at the time. Your article was about the integration of PCs to mainframes and transferring data to the PC. This was a very political area as mainframers wanted to control corporate data. If you remember, we were using “Irma PC 3270 cards” to transfer data to diskettes and cheaper hard drives than mainframe storage. Your article published in PC Week and Forbes was the turning point in storage economics. My phone did not stop ringing for weeks from angry mainframers and IT leaders from around the country circa 1986. My position at the time was that data manipulation was much easier and faster than having to make a formal request to access data from tape and IBM 8” floppies. Incidentally, this was how I first met you some 38 years ago.

  3. David, floppies are not yet gone and forgotten.

    I have one client running at least two MS-DOS 6.2 computers. To do a necessary repair on one, I had to start all over again installing DOS from floppies on a 100MHz Pentium computer with 4 ISA bus slots needed to control an expensive factory process. The computer now boots from an SSD. You’ve never seen DOS boot so fast! This project was the subject of an AskWoody piece.

    Recently, I replaced a Gateway 486 with a detuned Dell Optiplex 7050 driving a factory device through a serial port. AFAIK, the Optiplex was the last one that would support the legacy BIOS setup needed to boot DOS. Newer systems are UEFI boot only.

    Client, who bought out the original company, likes results and has other old DOS computers to deal with. I am prepared with both 3.5″ and HIGH-DENSITY 5.25″ floppy drives, and my DOS install floppies and CD-ROM.

    And then, there is the medical practice that needed a cooling fan replaced on a 486 Windows NT computer running a stress test treadmill. No floppies there, as yet. But if ever NT needs to be reinstalled…

  4. David, great travels down memory lane. I was a co-founder of an early PC software company, GSS. Graphical programming tools for PC’s (GKS, CGI, CGM). We started the company with a PDP-11 8″ floppy system. We also had an S100 bus, home built, “gray box”. We called it tandem computing 🙂
    Between 1981 and 1992, we had 1 (or more) computers, printers, mice, and plotter from every US company in our building. Apple devices, IBM, DEC, Apollo, Otrona, Altos, HP, ATT, Northstar, Wang, Altair. We created software drivers for most of these computers before they were publicly announced. One of my favorite stories about floppies: We shipped our software on 8″ disks initially. We had a guaranteed-to-work satisfaction policy. One client said they couldn’t get it to work….the disk was bad, they said. I asked them to return it to us, and we would replace it. Several days later, I received the disk, folded in half, in a #10 size business envelope. I took the disk, and lightly pressed out the “fold” marks of the 8″ soft-shell. I then inserted the disk into our Altos test system. The system read the disk just fine, booted, and displayed all files on the disk. We sent the customer a new non-folded disk in replacement. But the problem wasn’t on the disk, it was the user 😉

  5. Great memories David! I worked as a tech for Wang Labs back in the mid 80’s and we used oscilloscopes to do head alignments on 8″, one sided floppies. How quickly that all changed…

  6. The original IBM PC came with 5 1/4 floppy disks as an “option”–and initially they were 160K single-sided. In 1992 I bought one of the very first IBM PCs in New York with double-sided drives–which required using the new DOS 2.0. Then I bought WordStar. For months it wouldn’t run under DOS 2.0; I had to get the IBM store to give me a “pirate” DOS 1.1 boot disk–which effectively turned all my precious double-sided disks into single-siders. Double-siders held 320K until somewhere along the line DOS allowed formatting them to a massive 360K.

    And a year or so later I bought my first outboard hard drive–a whopping 10MB for a whopping $1000!

  7. Wow! Mind exploded on that read. I recently unloaded my old floppies — remember the old ‘flip top’ boxes used to store them in? Yes, two of those. Unloaded my old Compaq luggable, too. The guy who has it took apart the keyboard to remove the deteriorating pad and replaced it with — wait for it — his gym socks. They worked! Flashback to a press event we did in NYC; one of the journalists who came wrote how our presenter “dialed the haze”… (Hayes modem she meant.) Flashed back to using Syntrex word processors with a shared printer which made so much noise it was enclosed in its own plexi and wood box. Thanks for the memories.

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