What Has Your Floppy Drive Done for You Lately?PC makers are still standing by floppy drives despite vanishing consumer demand.
Tom Spring, PCWorld.com
Floppy drives were once an indispensable part of personal computing. But not anymore: 21 years after the introduction of the 3 1/2-inch floppy disk, the floppy drive looks to be on the brink of extinction. But in spite of the floppy's creep toward obsolescence, PC makers aren't ready to give up on them--yet.
Less than 10 percent of us store data on a stingy 1.44 megabyte disk, according to Disk/Trend, a market research firm. And that number is falling: storage-media manufacturer Maxell says the floppy industry is shrinking at a rate of 5 percent yearly.
"Floppies are too small for MP3 files, and good luck putting a PowerPoint presentation on one," says Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend.
Four years ago Apple was bold enough to ditch the floppy drive altogether with its iMac computer. It hasn't looked back since, eliminating the floppy drive from all subsequent systems. However, Apple's attitude is hardly contagious among Windows-based PC makers. No matter how much companies such as IBM dislike the floppy drive, they continue to stand behind them.
Old Standards Die Hard
Some PC makers actually have tried to kill off the floppy drive. Dell and IBM both tried and failed with their respective "legacy-free" computers that shipped without floppy drives and other dated technologies such as parallel ports and ISA slots.
So why are we so attached to the floppy disk?
"At this point they are a security blanket," says Lisa Emard, spokesperson for Gateway. "Not many customers use floppy disks. But because people have always had one they feel like it's a checklist item they need to have."
"I personally can't remember the last time I used the floppy drive," says Brian Zucker, technology evangelist for consumer and small-business products at Dell.
Not only are they unnecessary--sometimes the floppy can simply be in the way.
"I would love to get rid of the floppy drive from my systems," says Dilip Bhatia, IBM's NetVista segment marketing manager. He says floppy drives keep IBM from being able to make NetVista systems even smaller.
Nonetheless floppy drives are mandatory with most consumer desktop PCs. Sony, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM won't even let you ditch the floppy drive when you customize a standard consumer desktop PC.
PC makers defend the floppy, arguing a small number of their consumers still want the drives. They also say the hardware costs are so small that it's easier to just throw the drive in whether you want it or not. It would cost IBM more money to remove the drive, Bhatia says. Users would call customer support wondering where the floppy drive went, he says.
Gateway, however, is now offering PCs without them. Just last Thursday, Gateway began to allow you remove the floppy drive from its consumer desktop PC line for a savings of $5.
"People think they need a floppy drive but they never actually use them," Emard says.
Dell disagrees, saying plenty of its customers still use the floppy drive as a way to transfer files and to create emergency boot disks to jumpstart their PC if Windows won't boot up.
Microsoft and the Floppy Disk
While that may be true, the rationale that you need a floppy drive for an emergency boot disk is getting harder to defend. In earlier versions of Windows, the emergency floppy disk was used to launch the operating system's diagnostic and repair programs if the OS had become too corrupt to boot on its own.
Microsoft's latest OS, Windows XP, uses the installation CD as its own rescue disk instead of a floppy disk. In fact, programs have outgrown floppies. Because XP is far more sophisticated, you would need six floppy disks to load the XP equivalent of a boot disk. And according to Microsoft's support Web site, future operating systems will require CD-ROM booting capability and floppy boot disks won't be an option.
A further sign of Microsoft's waning support of the floppy is XP's inability to format 720KB capacity floppy disks.
The End of the Road?
Experts say the real slayer of the floppy drive won't be Microsoft or any individual PC vendor. Instead, more efficient storage options, such as CD burners, removable storage media like Sony's Memory Stick, and keychain-sized USB storage devices like DiskOnKey sold by M-Systems will gradually replace the disks.
To a certain extent, the Internet also is responsible for the demise of the floppy disk. It's quick and easy to transfer files smaller than one megabyte from PC to PC using e-mail.
That said, PC makers report that USB-based floppy drives are still very popular among notebook owners. Floppy drives are also still supported by companies like Sony, which sell a digital camera, the SD75 Mavica, that relies on floppy disks as removable storage.
"It's a credit to the floppy that they are still relevant today," Porter says. By comparison, the dot matrix printer, introduced in 1976--the same year that the 5 1/4-inch floppy made its debut--has long been considered obsolete.
The 5 1/4-inch design eventually gave way to the 3.5-inch disk, developed by Sony in 1981, says Porter.
It's hard to think the floppy was ever cutting edge. But in the early days of computing, the floppy disk was just that. It allowed PC hobbyists to switch from storing code on unreliable cassette tape recorders and complicated punch cards to storing data on easy-to-use removable floppy disks.
By all estimates from PC makers, the floppy disk still has several years before it slips completely into obsolescence. In 2002, about one billion floppy disks will be distributed. While that may sound like a lot, actually it's a significant decline. At its peak in the late 90s, about 5 billion floppy disks were sold each year, according to Disk/Trend.