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Stick a fork in floppies - they're done

Sony brings a long history to quiet end

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Stop us if you've heard this before: the floppy drive is dead. Sony has announced that it will stop selling the long-running storage medium next year.

According to the BBC, the end of floppy sales in Japan coupled with Sony's dropping international floppy sales earlier this year sticks the proverbial fork in the finicky, low-capacity storage medium.

Well, almost. The venerable 3.5-inch floppy is still available from the likes of Verbatim, Imation (3M), and Maxell - although Sony's abandonment of the once-ubiquitous media moves it another giant step towards utter irrelevance.

But the floppy's journey to inconsequentiality has been one long, slow slog.

When Steve Jobs announced his company-saving iMac in May of 1998, its lack of a floppy drive was met with an outcry of outrage - but the handwriting was on the wall. And it said: "Goodbye, floppy."

When the iMac shipped in August of that year, reviews of its floppylessness were mixed. Macworld, for example, wrote: "The most shocking part of the iMac isn't what it offers, but what it lacks. The iMac has no floppy drive, which might be forgivable if there were a Zip drive or other removable-media option, but there isn't."

Others, however, were more understanding. Ars Technica for example, noted: "Apple has gotten a lot of heat for dumping the floppy, but I don't have any problem with the action in principle. It's high time we move ourselves away from this pathetically small kind of storage."

Soon, more rumors of the floppy's demise began to circulate. At its 1999 Developer Forum, devs were told to prepare for a floppy-free future. In 2001, Intel hustled to deny that it was advising the removal of floppy drives from PCs, as had been revealed in internal documents.

Then, in 2003, Dell said it would drop the flop, which hastened the inexorable decline of the sales of the diskettes. In 2007, floppies disappeared from UK retailer PC World's shelves.

Not that there wasn't a gaggle of floppy replacements floated by various and sundry manufacturers. Insite's Floptical drive - which guided the read-write head optically but used standard magnetic storage techniques - increased the little fellow's capacity to 21MB. This hybrid tech resurfaced in Imation's 120MB SuperDisk - but that drive met with only limited success.

Other manufacturers tried putting flexible media into different high-capacity removable-disk technologies even before the floppy's demise - Iomega's 100MB Zip Drive, introduced in May 1995, being arguably the most successful.

In those removable-disk salad days, cartridges based on rigid-disk technologies were also being popped into internal and external drives - most notably SyQuest (bought by Iomega in 1999), followed by Iomega's 1GB and 2GB Jaz and 35GB "Son of Jaz," the Rev. During the waning days of rigid removables, SyQuest founder Syed Iftikar's start-up Castlewood flogged the 2GB Orb drive to little success.

And no trip down removable magnetic-media memory lane would be complete without at least a passing nod to Iomega's two-inch Clik!, introduced in 1999 and rebranded in 2000 as the Pocket Zip. As Iomega admits, "These products met limited market acceptance and were eventually discontinued."

The Zip drive - which was boosted to 250MB in 1998 and to 750MB in 2002 - was a follow-on to Iomega's Bernoulli Box technology. It was the only high-capacity flexible-media removable adopted to any great degree by OEMs. That success was never matched by other attempts such as Sony's 200MB HiFD, Samsung's 123MB Pro-FD, Matsushita-Kotobuki's 32MB FD32MB, or the aforementioned Imation SuperDisk.

Floppies, on the other hand, were everywhere during their heyday. Starting out in the early 1970s in an 8-inch form factor, they became de rigueur in early S-100 CP/M systems, especially after the DSDD (double-sided, double-density), 1.2MB version was released in the late 70s.

Floppies then shrank to 5.25 inches, popularized in the Apple II and IBM Personal Computers. When the 3.5-inch floppy appeared in the early 1980s the magnetic disk itself remained flexible, but it was encased in a hard-plastic case - which undoubtedly led to puzzlement among the younger generation of PC users, who wondered where the term "floppy" came from.

The most popular of those 3.5-inch disks began at 400KB (as in the original 128K Macintosh), then grew to 800KB (as in the Macintosh 512ke) and finally stabilized with 1.44MB FDHD format in the late 80s - which Apple, in its characteristically understated marketing-speak, dubbed the SuperDrive.

But as file sizes grew, floppies were doomed. Their first serious competition were CD-R and CD-RW drives - although the latter never managed to deal the floppy the final death blow.

That coup de grâce came with the introduction of flash-based thumb drives, which soon became the new hotness. Not only did thumb-drive capacities quickly rise and prices quickly fall, but their portability, relative speed, and reliability soon made them sneakernet's go-to media. Faster LANs, simplified PC-to-PC file-sharing, and broadband also made both simple drag-and-drop file-sharing and emailing more-secure methods of transfering files.

To be sure, floppies put up a good fight. Witness, for example, Maplin's combo floppy-drive-cum-card-reader of 2008. But thumb drives were not to be denied - although Memorex did give a nod to nostalgia with its retro FlashDisc offered by Buffalo and Verbatim.

And now with Sony's announcement, Steve Jobs gets to say "I told you so." ®

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