Computing has gone a long way since the conception of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1837. Although the original ancestor of today’s modern computers have failed to deliver its intended function, technological revolution have changed the way people use the machine. This evolution of computers also entailed the same changes in associated hardware that changed the way people store information. The extinct era of floppy disk is divided into three generations, the 8”, 5.25” and 3.5”. Prior to the introduction of the floppy disk, storage medium back 1977 is in a form of a tape. However, the 8-inch drive has been around since 1971, but at that time, floppy disks were very expensive at a price of $200 a piece (Engh 701). Since its conception, floppy disk or otherwise popularly known as diskette have already established itself as an icon of technological revolution. This paper will discuss the development of floppy disk, its historical contribution to computing along with its innovators and current use. Before storage media came to a massive 1-terabyte super storage device, it all started from a series of diskette generations that spans four decades of domination.
An Icon’s History
The advent of the 1960’s computer semiconductor memory led to the disappointment of losing valuable data in the central memory due to occasional power interruption. However, engineers of International Business Machines (IBM) strived to find a better solution to the problem and came up with an idea of a storage media where operating systems can be restored to the computer’s central memory. The concept was to create a simple storage hardware that can accommodate at least 65 kilobytes of data. Such capacity is nothing compared to today’s massive electronic data sizes, even the soft copy of this entire paper tops that 65 KB requirement. There are several ideas laid upon the table as to how the storage media should be like. IBM looked into the magnetic belt models, phonographic records, tape cartridges, dictating machine-recording disk and the list goes on.
After several debates about the model of the earliest floppy version, the IBM San Jose Development Laboratory came up with an idea to simply use a flexible disc type of device (Engh 701). The innovation that is the floppy disk was a combined effort of IBM’s Engineering team led by its director Allen Shugart. However during a speech in 1998, Shugart gave most of the credits to Dave Noble who is a program manager at IBM in 1967. Other key individuals mentioned by Shugart to be the fathers of floppy disk are Ralph Flores and Herb Thompson (Shugart). The former designed the jacket that houses the magnetic disk, which according to IBM is just as important as the disk itself. This is because without the disk jacket, the data stored in the disk will not last very long as the disk itself is vulnerable to environmental elements and is very sensitive from scratches.
Despite IBM’s claims to be the innovators of the floppy disk era, the Japanese inventor Dr. Yoshiro Nakmatsu claims that he have already invented the disk in 1952 while working in the University of Tokyo (Hornyak 8). The irony here is that IBM does not deny Nakamatsu’s claims, but only argues that they own the patent of the floppy. Other reports also confirm that IBM did made agreements with Nakamatsu in 1970 just to avoid conflicts. With ownership patent claims settled, IBM pursued the implementation of floppy disk in backing up IBM codes particularly during distribution. However, since floppy disk is just primarily being used inside IBM facilities, other computers could only read the contents of the disk, but does not have the capability to write anything in it. As engineering innovations in the company continues, the ability of the field computers to write directly to the disk became possible. This development led to a more efficient way of sharing data and long-term data storage.
The continuous engineering refinement of the storage media progressively made floppy disks smaller as it increases in memory capacity. The 8-inche floppy disk introduced in 1970 until 1975 can only hold up to 1 Megabyte of data, the second generation of floppy disk was introduced in 1975 and continued the 1990’s with a much smaller of 5.25 inches as compared to its predecessor. It was in the 1990’s that the 3.5-inch diskette came that can hold an impressive 3.5 Megabytes of data. As commercial computers became available in the 1980’s and its price began to subsequently go down, the popularity of the floppy disk suddenly increased and it became a primary trend in computing. The first commercially available computer to offer having a 3.23 floppy drive was Apple II computer (Wozniak & Smith 216), and again, Apple surprised the world in 1984 as they introduce the first computer with a Sony 3.5-inch diskette drive (Herzfeld 160). Soon after Apple led innovation in integrating the actual floppy disk drives into the computer as part of a an added hardware, IBM pursued the same venture.
The 3.5 floppy disk is basically sturdier, convenient in terms of size and more value considering the greater amount of data that can be stored in it as compared to its predecessors. Another very distinct change in the 3.5 floppy is that the 8 and 5.25 inch both have open jackets, but the 3.5 features a metal covering that slides open when the diskette is inserted to the drive. When people first saw the new 3.5 floppy disk, the reaction can only be compared to the day we first saw HD in movie. The Idea fascinates the people including innovators for decades.
Floppy disk appears to be a very simple piece of computing hardware with very simple components, but its operational concept is very complex. In fact, sizing down the disks from eight to five and eventually three inches took years to accomplish. The 8-inch floppy for example took sometime to transition into 5-inch because of several considerations about choosing the right size, the fragile nature of the disk inside the jacket have challenged IBM engineers. In addition, resizing the diskette size also requires a completely new set of operating hardware, IBM was faced with a dilemma of finding the right equipment to utilize the purpose of the floppy disk until Steve Jobs from Apple took the challenge and built the first 5-inch floppy disk drive. What comprises a floppy disk is a thin round plastic that has been coated on both sides with magnetic material a d placed of protective casing. The use of floppy disk is also as simple as inserting a DVD to the player. However, the protective metal on top of each diskette is being moved out of the way inside the drive to expose the magnetic disk. Traditional drives normally have two heads to read and write data to the disk.
The difference that floppy disc made in comparison to tapes and punch cards is that data can be written simultaneously in sectors while other functions such as reading the data is on-going. Each diskette is formatted with File Allocation Table (FAT) to separate data tracks into segments. This capability enables users to jump into any files stored in the diskette because the reading head will search the data in the disk’s sectors by means of identifying the tracks stored in each sector adding the so-called user-friendliness. Floppy disk is a piece of ingenuity that helped shaped that technology that people have today. Without the concept of storing information due to power failures there is arguably no flash drives or external drives for that matter will exist today. Floppy disk did not only represent file management solution, but it could also be considered as the earliest form of file sharing before the age of World Wide Web.
The End of an Era
After more than forty years of existence, the beloved staple of today’s technological upbringing has eventually suffered a painful death. The last generation of the floppy disk (3.5-inch) have finally waved goodbye as its maker Sony announced that they would no longer manufacture floppy disk starting in 2011 (Luttrell). The company expresses its intention to phase out the storage media in since it longer delivers any sales particularly during the advent of the lash drive technology. Although the company will still continue to market its remaining stock in niche countries, but the product will no longer run in the company’s manufacturing facilities. Sony still owns 40% of what remains in the market followed by an equally popular brand Verbatim. However, Verbatim also expressed its interest in discontinuing the products because of the massive sales decline of the 3.5-inch floppy. The floppy area still exist in some era, since there are still existing computers with working floppy disk drives and there are still people trying to keep the floppy disk alive in their system.
What Went Wrong?
Speculations exists that Apple is the main culprit to the death of the floppy disk era. It was Apple that first introduced the 5.25-inch version in their Apple II computers and Sony took the technology further by reducing its size tripling its storage capacity. On the other hand, when Apple released its iMac G3 computers, it seemed to have issued the floppy’s death certificate with something new called “USB”. It was 1998 that the Apple released their earlier version of iMac without the 3.5-inche floppy drives. It was a bold move and the majority of computer owners laugh at the idea of not having a floppy drive the machine. However, as the world progresses technologically, as the data produced grows bigger and more complex, the floppy can no longer keep up with the demand for bigger storage capabilities.
The floppy disk was once a symbolic piece that represents the technological boom. Personal computers are nothing without them and floppy disk was the first to define “file-sharing”. When Apple stopped integrating floppy dries in their computer in 1998, other companies followed Apple’s footsteps stopped putting floppy drives in their standard equipment in 2003. Hewlett-Packard did the same and such change signaled the coming end of the floppy disk era (Swartz 12). There are two factors the caused the shift in storage media preference. First is the introduction of the least expensive Universal Serial Bus flash drives and the Internet. USB holds 1,000 times more storage capacity than floppy disk and that capacity further extends as new generation of USB flash drives houses as much as 32 gigabyte of data or equivalent to approximately 10,000 floppy disks combined. In addition, USB drives are much more convenient than varying an entire shelf of floppy disks. USB’s are less susceptible to physical and magnetic damage as compared to floppy disks that are very sensitive to magnetism.
The growth of the internet era also punch a huge hole in the future of floppy disk as information no longer needs to be stored as they were back in the days, but rather distributed within the vast network of servers worldwide. In the Internet environment, information is can be shares and retrieved in real-time anywhere in the world, it is something that floppy disk an never compete with. The Internet encompasses better security and unlimited capacity. In the coming years, it is anticipated that the floppy disk will also join the list of technological relics such as the IBM 80 column punch cards. The age of CD’s, DVD’s, flash drives and SD cards, Web 2,0 have changed the game for the floppy disk and ultimately changed the way people share and tore information. Although there are still people using floppy disk as their primary choice for storing data, it is still apparent that one day soon they would too abandon floppy disk in favor of higher performance storage media.
Engh, James T. "The IBM diskette and diskette drive." IBM Journal of Resource Development 25.5 (1981): 701. Web. 9 Sept. 2013.
Hornyak, Tim. "Dr. NakaMats: Japan's Self-Proclaimed Savior | Japan -- Business People Technology." Japan Inc. japaninc.com, 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
Luttrell, Mike. "The end of an era: Sony officially kills floppy disks." tgdaily.com. tgdaily.com, 26 Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Sept. 2013.
Shugart, Allen. "100th Magnetic Recording Conference." MDHC. mdhc.scu.edu, 14 Dec. 1998. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
Swartz, Nikki. "Will floppy drives become extinct?" The Information Management Journal 37.3 (2003): 12. Web. 9 Sept. 2013.