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A farewell to floppies

Who is General Error, and why is he reading my Drive A? Now, we shall never know
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

I'll say this for Dixons Store Group, eponymous controllers of the high-street retail name and PC World superstores. It gets a lot of mileage out of dropping a product line. As it crossed first film cameras, then VCRs off its inventory lists, a savvy PR sent out a press release highlighting the death of an era — and the media loved it. It sounded another Last Post this week — this time, for the floppy disk. The reaction has been a near-universal sigh of relief: from Bad Sector to File Not Found via BDOS ERROR ON B, the range of infuriating errors visited by the medium on its human hosts has been large and painful.

Floppies deserve to be remembered for more than this. They were the first sensible mass storage available for the personal computer, and the key to turning a technological curiosity into a viable work tool. A processor, some memory and a display makes for a fine videogame, but if you want to work on anything for more than a day, you need a disk drive. It's easy to forget how revolutionary they were when they first appeared, and how welcome they were as they became affordable. Hard disks were mainframe territory and cassette tapes an exercise in Zen-like patience, but an Apple II with Electric Pencil and Visicalc on 5.25-inch floppies could run a business.

The evolution of the floppy is the industry in microcosm. Invented by IBM in the late 1960s, the eight-inch diskette was a read-only device used to load microcode on mainframes. Semiconductor memories were replacing magnetic core store, but had the big problem that they forgot what they held when the power went off. The project manager, one Alan Shugart, then left to go to Memorex and produce the read and writable variant — and IBM lost control of the format for good. Various companies produced various versions, with high prices and incompatibility galore: a concerted effort lead to the first ANSI storage standard and a rapid decrease in cost and increase in take-up.

Things were getting smaller all over. Burroughs (remember them?) invented the 5.25-inch floppy in 1975, but decided it wouldn't make any money. In 1976, Shugart Associates re-invented it and made quite a lot of money — personal computers running CP/M were just kicking off, and the time was right. That format lasted, in ever-increasing capacities, until well into the 1990s. By then Sony's 3.5-inch floppy had taken over: it had been around since the early 1980s, got its big break with Apple's Mac and became the disk of choice for everyone outside the PC world. And that was good enough — despite an overabundance of other formats in all sizes from an inch upwards, it saw the floppy disk through to the end, when it was simply outmoded and irrelevant.

Not that there weren't quirky moments along the way. In 1986, Amstrad bought the rights to its rival Sinclair Research's computers, including the much-loved Spectrum range. Sinclair indulged in one last act of defiance by delivering the material on eight-inch floppies — a pair of which happened to be attached to its VAX development system. "What the hell do we do with these?" said Alan Sugar, a man to whom the concept of an eight-inch floppy had somewhat different connotations. He got his own back, though: by signing a deal with the manufacturers of three-inch disk drives to sell him units at a fixed percentage beneath the lowest-priced 3.5-inch drive, he got the cheapest option going for generations of computers without lifting a finger. Towards the end, it was rumoured, Hitachi had to keep a factory going just for Amstrad — it lost money on each drive, but not as much as if it had broken the contract.

That obscure format saw its finest hour in the PCW range of CP/M word processors which sold by the million: its passing leaves the world with a legacy of documents that'll be ever harder to read. As will all data on floppies, over time. USB keys may be more reliable and capacious, remote backup on the net may be proof against local disasters, but a unique part of the IT world has gone. No more write-protect tabs leaving sticky smears on textured black vinyl, no more special floppy pens for writing labels without distorting the disk, no more "I backed it up in the photocopier" jokes, no more late night heart sink to the rhythm of the heads, seeking again and again for the corrupted tracks that once held tomorrow's presentation. That won't be missed — but it'll never be forgotten.

If you want to indulge in even more digital nostalgia, Wikipedia's article on the floppy disk is excellent

 

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