Floppy Disks: It’s been a great 30 years

The legendary floppy disk spurred the eruption of viable home computing. But it’s time has come.

Sony, the lone manufacturer of floppy disks today, has recently announced that it will completely stop production in 2011. It’s already stopped manufacturing floppy disk drives.

You may be surprised to hear floppy disks haven’t already died—which is true enough for North America. Sony currently makes them predominantly for the Japanese market.

Web-based data storage pushed floppy disks out of the house years ago, but the floppy wasn’t ready to leave quite then, doing something the equivalent of selling lemonade for a dime on the front lawn to passersby. But it was almost worthwhile: in 2008, they sold over 8 million units in Japan alone, and in 2009, sold 12 million globally, before withdrawing from international production. While these numbers may seem high, they’re sharply reduced from what they once were. 47 million units were sold globally in 2002, and since the floppy disks sales peak in the mid 90’s, demand has fallen nearly 90%.

Techvibes has assembled a timeline from the birth to the death of the floppy disk, which has made its mark in history.

1967: Tape drives weren’t cutting it. IBM sees the need for a lighter, faster data-storage device. They assign the task to their San Jose-based storage development centre.

1971: The original, 8-inch floppy disk goes commercial. It can hold a whopping 80 kilobytes of data. Thats 0.08 megabytes.

1972: A minor storage upgrade. The floppy disk can now hold 0.12 megabytes.

1973: Advances in technology continue; the floppy disk boasts a capacity of up to 0.24 megabytes. Floppy disks are touted as “high speed” and “mass storage” devices.

1976: The physical dimensions of the floppy disk became unattractive. Desktop makers requested a smaller version.  Manufacturer Shugart Associates developed a 5.25-inch floppy disk that, despite being considerably smaller, still held a tenth of a megabyte worth of data. It was also notably more affordable than IBM’s 8-inch predecessor.

1978: Tandon introduced a double-sided drive, effectively doubling the capacity. Then, a new double-density format increased the capacity again, to an unprecedented 360 kB, or a third of a megabyte.

Early 1980s: This is where the legend reaches its final stage. Sony pioneers the 3.5-inch floppy, which is the one most people are familiar with as its size never changed beyond this point. The first computer to use this format was in 1982.

1984: Apple Computer selects the new, 3.5-inch format for their new Macintosh computers.

1985: Atari and Commodore adopt the 3.5-inch format for their computer lines. Three years later, the 3.5-inch format outsells the preceding 5.25 version.

Late 1980s: Competing companies surged forward, pushing the capacity boundaries of the disk to well over 1,000 kB.

Mid 1990s: The limitations of floppy disks began to unravel. Akin to the tape drives the floppy had replaced, it in itself had taken on the traits of its predecessor: relative to modern technologies, the floppy disk had grown clunky, restrictive, and unreliable. Its data-storage capacity had becoming increasingly useless as program sizes grew. Zip, CD, and DVD (and eventually USB) technologies proved much more capable and relatively inexpensive.

1998: Despite the floppy disks demand having peaked three years prior, it still had a fan base. And this fan base raged when Apple’s 1998 iMac was released with not one single internal floppy drive in sight. Apple argued the disk was essentially obsolete, what with expanding hard drive capacities and the Internet’s rising popularity. Floppy fans were not convinced, and many purchased external floppy disks. But the rebellion was short-lived and likely nostalgia-driven. Disk drives plummeted in use shortly after.

2003: Dell removed floppy disk readers as standard desktop equipment, rendering the floppy disk one notch closer to all-out extinction. (There was no rebellion against this decision.)

2009: Hitachi Maxell, alongside Mitsubishi Kagaku Media, ceases to manufacture floppy disks.

2010: Sony ceases manufacturing of its external floppy disk drives.

2011: Precisely three decades after its commercial birth comes its commercial death. RIP Floppy Disk.