The Eternal Floppy Disk: The Icon that Never Dies

The Eternal Floppy Disk: The Icon that Never Dies

Summary: When was the last time you had a computer with a floppy disk drive? Five years?

TOPICS: Hardware

When was the last time you had a computer with a floppy disk drive? Five years? Six? If you’re a Mac user, it could be ten years or more. Safe to say the floppy disk has been a thing of the past for eons, at least in computing years. And, with its maximum storage capacity and reliability so very 20th century relative to the ubiquitous memory stick of today, there’s little to be nostalgic for when it comes to one of the PC’s less-than-enduring technologies.

So you may be surprised to know that there’s probably still a floppy disk inside your computer, one that you may use every day, even if, like most of us, you probably never realize you’re using it. Fact is, the floppy disk not only never really disappeared, it may be more ubiquitous today than it ever was --- especially if you, like a few hundred million computers users worldwide, still live and work inside the Microsoft Office world.

The eternal floppy disk you could still be using every day is that floppy disk icon sitting somewhere in upper left hand corner of your Microsoft Word, Excel, or other desktop application. Look carefully and there it is: a floppy disk of the 3 ½ inch variety, first used in 1982 and probably not used by most of us this century in anything but this iconic, virtual form.

Its ubiquity and longevity extend well beyond the legacy of the Office applications that first used the floppy disk as the universal sign of “save.” Microsoft’s latest and coolest business application, Microsoft CRM Live, as on-line and 21st century as you’ll get from Microsoft, also uses a little floppy disk icon for saving your work, even though the actual physical location of that file could as likely be in Tutwila as it is in Timbuktu. It’s there in your Adobe reader and your Palm Desktop as well, not to mention in the Word wannabe, at least according to Wikipedia.

To their credit, Google and Zoho, two of the other on-line Word wannabes, eschew the floppy disk save icon in favor of a Save button. A Save button? How ultra-modern, supercool can you get?

What does this say about the computing industry and its always hip and leading edge self-image? One thing for sure, the industry is a little more staid and a lot less transient than its own PR would have us believe. It also highlights how much we take the user interface for granted when we look at a computer screen: I pointed out the ubiquity of the floppy disk to a whole raft of Microsoft employees at a recent conference, and every one of them admitted they hadn’t realized they were accessing a twenty six-year old icon every time they tried to save a file.

So just remember that when you use that little floppy disk icon to save a file, you’re re-enacting a long-lost historical moment in the antediluvian culture of the personal computer. It’s kind of like dialing a phone number, or rolling down the window in your car, or going to the drive-in: somewhere, firmly lodged in our DNA, is a memory of real floppy disks, storing data, moving around the office via sneaker-net and, more often than we liked, getting folded, spindled, and mutilated in the process. The fact that so many of us still go through the virtual motions of saving to a floppy disk every day speaks volumes about how much that ritual embedded itself in our lives. And how much we’re not really paying attention to how far our desktop software has advanced, and how much it’s still mired in the deep, and forgettable, past.

Topic: Hardware

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  • The Point You Should Have Made

    What hasn't changed much is not the technology, but the tendency of humans to resist change. The UI is not changing as rapidly cas it could because people change slowly. However, an interesting point for your article would have been this:

    Why do we keep providing a "Save" button instead of just saving the document as you type it, like OLPC does?
    • Save-As-You-Type

      This is particularly interesting, because even though Office went through a major UI overhaul in its 2007 edition, the Save button remains in all of the programs with the exception of OneNote (Student Edition). I think this illustrates your (dunraven's) point in that Microsoft chose to introduce save-as-you-type in a relatively new product, while keeping the standard floppy disk save button for the 2007 versions of applications that the public is already accustomed to (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel).
      soup or man
  • RE: The Eternal Floppy Disk: The Icon that Never Dies

    I actually still have a 3 1/2" floppy drive in my system. In fact, I just used it yesterday to access some fairly old documents that contained some needed contact information relevant to a fund-raiser at my child's preschool.

    I do agree that floppy disks are no longer really useful for anything other than accessing old, archival information, but it is definitely good to still have one available for those rare occasions when it is needed.
    • USB Floppy

      Yes! I purchased a USB Floppy drive a few years ago.
      Just in case I needed any old docs from any of my computers.
      Nowadays all data is backed up to external USB hard drives from my internal hard drive:- well actually I have a network drive as well (It gets backed up as well)
      I am Gorby
  • The good ole save icon

    In my opinion there isn't an icon that truly captures the word save like a good ole floppy aside from a hard drive icon. But not even a cd/dvd icon. I still have floppies in many of my pcs but yeah they are 5 years and older.
  • RE: The Eternal Floppy Disk: The Icon that Never Dies

    Staples, etc. still sells them. Somebody must be buying then.
    very old techie
  • RE: The Eternal Floppy Disk: The Icon that Never Dies

    When was the last time I used a computer that had a floppy disk?

    Last night.

    Seven. That's the number of computers I have that have floppy disks built into them.

    There's my desktop machine, my linux-based server, my old game-playing DOSbox (300mhz K6 with both 3.5 and 5.25). There's my Compaq Aero laptop, which uses an external floppy. Then there's my C-128, my Amiga and my IBM PC (with dual half-height 5.25s).
    I have 3 boxes of blank 3.5 disks on the shelf, because I found them cheap at Office Depot.
  • Floppies Still Widely Used By General Public...

    Every computer I have in use has a floppy-drive. I have a library of several hundred floppies including a few hundred 1.2M/5.25". Every computer userer in this area still has and uses floppies for utility programs and data storage because they are still using DR-DOS, MS-DOS, Windows 3.11, Windows-95, and Windows-98..... you don't need all the fancy new technology and bloated Windows OS's to run your business..... If they want to play games, they buy a PS2 or Wii.
    • A True Floppy Fan

      DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, a PS2...

      You certainly like your old technologies :P

      I know I still have Windows 95 on a 40-disc box set of floppies somewhere...
  • I deleted my floppy disk ages ago

    ...along with the undo and redo icons. They take up space on the taskbar that is badly needed for other more useful items. Anyone who laboriously mouses up to click those buttons instead of using Ctrl/Cmd-S, -Z and -shift-Z is a computing n00b, in my arrogant opinion. ;-)
  • RE: Comments above

    These comments bring up a good point that reflects on the anger against Word 2007 and Vista as well: those of us who compute in the real world of tight budgets and longstanding organizations have to constantly balance the value of upgrading vs. the loss of the ability to use older equipment due to driver issues and the danger of inability to access our precious archive of historical data. Computer manufacturers are always pushing the latest and greatest, but we have to worry about the consequences of being on the cutting edge which is much broader than the PC and software makers usually acknowledge.
  • is more than a wannabe

    I realize this was simply a side remark on your part, but is a useful software tool, and I use Writer (the word processor) on a regular basis. Particularly for the home user who doesn't have several hundred dollars to shell out, is stable, compatible with Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and has most of the features that people use every day.

    You may be forgetting that at one time, MS Word might have been called a Wordperfect "wannabe". Contrary to what people might think, Microsoft did not invent the word processor. In many ways, WordPerfect is still arguable superior to MS Word despite having lost its dominance years ago.

    And yes, also uses the ubiquitous floppy save button.
    Some Geeky Guy
  • Could Be Worse

    Could be an icon of a 5-1/2" disk.

    I've still got a couple of 8" floppy disks. They were for one class in college, 20+ years ago.
    • Ah yeah, I remember...

      Yes, those 8" disks from years ago, back when "floppies" were really floppy! Our first commercial computers ran off those before there were inexpensive hard drives. Makes me seem REAL old now!
  • Re. The Eternal Floppy Disk

    Call me retro if you want, but my emphasis is on productivity, not change for change's sake. So...

    1) I'm not too excited about 1 "obsolete" icon. Delete it if it bothers you.

    2) I think some inertia in user interfaces can be a good thing. All too often, a user interface is torn apart and reassembled with no significant improvement, causing significant inconvenience (Microsoft please note!).

    3) I still have several computers with floppy drives in them, and still use floppies for some simple file transfers. Not as often as I used to, but for a $15 device, I get my money's worth.

    4) Have companies that release certain diagnostics or drivers on floppies made a transition to USB or other non-floppy storage? Last time I looked at Dell's offerings, it appeared that Dell still uses floppies for such distributions. It probably is time to move this kind of floppy application onto newer media.

    Even I admit that the floppy drive does not need to be eternal!
  • Do I detect a trace of snobbery here?

    I see floppy drives in home systems all the time. And we only just started replacing systems with floppy drives in them with ones without in our company this year.

    Just because you don't have, or don't use a floppy on your system doesn't mean the technology is dead, or even moribund.
  • RE: The Eternal Floppy Disk: still in use!

    For whatever reason, I find myself actually using a 3.5" floppy about twice a year. Would I spec a floppy drive on a new PC? Heck no - but I will hang on to my USB floppy drive for the foreseeable future.

    What's on those floppies? Last time it was to dredge up the original version of a legal document and the software used to create it (both on floppy), then convert the document to a modern data format for comparison to the current version of the same document.
    Jim Johnson
  • Some tools work...

    I don't often pull out my USB floppy but when I need it, I REALLY NEED IT. So, I think that the floppy will be around for awhile. It still has its uses. Let's face it: it still can hold a small file and fits into a pocket. Why, put a 46k file on a CD, which is harder to carry around and more fragile.
    • Floppy can be a lifesaver

      When my new DVD burner did it's auto-firmware update and glitched halfway through, the only way I found to revive the unit without having to send it for factory service was booting from a floppy and using a third party flash program to reprogram the original firmware. The shipping cost I was quoted to send the drive for service was over 65% of the original cost, if this hadn't worked, I was going to toss it.

      The store where I purchased it took the attitude that since it was damaged by a firmware update, it wasn't their problem. This despite the LG installer automatically installing the updater as part of a standard install.
  • Almost New PC with Floppy

    I bought a Velocity Micro PC (2.13Ghx Core 2Duo)about a year ago and it came with a floppy drive. I've never used it as I migrated all my floppies to my hard drive years ago but it's there. In fact I just looked at Velocitiy's web site and their top of the line $6k gaming machine still comes with a floppy.