The Eternal Floppy Disk: The Icon that Never Dies

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

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.