Demise of the Floppy
It's been a long time coming. As the guy who edited the first standard for the floppy (in Europe), I never thought the disks would last 36 years. Even the keyboard and the mouse have gone through several generations. Au revoir!
Stop us if you've heard this before: the floppy drive is dead. Sony has announced that it will stop selling the long-running storage medium next year. According to the BBC, the end of floppy sales in Japan coupled with Sony's dropping international floppy sales earlier this year sticks the proverbial fork in the finicky, low- …
Even though I haven't used a floppy in years the company I work for needs them to set up the cnc drill machines and routers since most of our equipment is vintage 1980's. If you think that's bad the plotter itself uses paper tape though most jobs are still sent on floppy from out customers.
I guess we'll be updating whether the boss can afford it or not.
My Amiga 500 booted from a floppy. Adding a whopping extra 512k of ram and an extra floppy drive (one to boot the "proper" multi tasking OS, the other to do stuff) increased its usefulness no end. Recently, I produced a Microsoft Word document of just over seventy pages. After I'd sent it out for review, received comments and merged them all into a single document, it came to just over 1.4MB. That's fair enough though.... Outlook reports my average email is pretty much too big for my first computer, a ZX Spectrum (but Outlook isn't nearly as much fun as going to bed after a couple of hours of 3d Death Race).
Now, I carry 32GB and enough processing power to fully emulate the Amiga (if the control freaks at Apple would ever allow it) in my pocket.
The world moves on but oh, how it has moved.
The problem with the iMac was not that it didn't have a floppy disk drive. The problem was that you couldn't open it up, and install a $30 internal floppy drive on your own if you wanted one, as you might on a beige box PC. Instead, you had to pay $100 for an external floppy that connected by USB and had its own power supply and so on.
I had an Amiga500 with a custom case respray done. I was the envy of everyone i knew. Then i also ran with an Atari 520ST, which we boosted the RAM up to outperform my mates' 1040ST.
Then i sold both, external drives and all, and got myself an Amiga 1500. A bit like an ancient PC to look at. Twin floppy drives built in. A hard drive... an actual hard drive, inside, for storing stuff from your floppies. Amazing!! And a monitor. So i could watch my 14" portable tv in my bedroom with no reception on the little indoor aerial and play cannon fodder at the same time... sending Jools & Jopps off to face certain death and have their tombstones placed upon the hill.
Happy happy happy days. So much so a couple of years ago i bought an Amiga600 on ebay for about £20, went round my best mates house and pretended we were 14 all day!!
ps. My Sinclair ZX Spectrum+2 is still in as new condition in my loft. Cant wait until my 2 year old is 8 so i can show her how awesome her youth is compared to mine lol
There are still some USB floppies around, but a flash drive works a whole lot better than those old floppies. I haven't used a floppy in years and all of my new machines are ordered without floppy drives. Pretty soon a 1GB SD card will cost the same as a floppy and that 6 in 1 card reader you bought for $20.00 will do just fine for a lot of years.
Whilst you might think people wonder why they're called floppy drives I remember myself being curious and examining a few by ripping open the plastic at the age of 10. Best thing was that they all still worked even when I put them back together having got my grubby fingers all over them.
Ahh the early days of PC gaming, when the latest big budget games like Syndicate came on 13 3.5inch floppies and the joyous fun of working out which order they needed to be put in in order to stop PKUNZIP throwing a hissy fit.
36 years, huh....wonder whether CDs and DVDs will make it that far.
...especially on older hardware and operating systems. For example, as recently as last year I was trying to install Windows XP onto my RAID array, but hit the rails as I didn't have a floppy drive to load the drivers and so of course the installer couldn't see the controller...
Also some of the old Compaq SoftPaqs insist on decompressing to a floppy drive.
It's been a slow and painful death but it won't be missed. But I'll always remember you enhanced 1.6MB capacity under RISC OS :)
RAID is one concern I had, especially where some operating systems only seem to want to load RAID drivers from a floppy, but most operating systems now accept drivers from external drives, and for xp, there's always nlite to add the driver to the install image in advance.
Please excuse me whilst I flash the BIOS on this old motherboard. Oh, lookee here: XP wants a SATA driver. etc.
Yeah, yeah, newer systems might not need such archaic devices, but you'd be surprised how long older systems kick around.
I'm not chucking my floppy stock quite yet.
Last time I used a floppy was last month, to upgrade the BIOS. The machine runs Windows 7, while flasher programs for the motherboard only came in XP (which crashes Windows 7 upon attempting to flash) or MS-DOS variants. Using an older XP box to create a bootable floppy then throwing in the flashing app and image then rebooting the windows 7 box to the floppy and flashing from there worked wonders. The BIOS' onboard flasher? requires the floppy drive too, and sorta glitched. And yes, the fact that XP needs an AHCI driver provided by means of a floppy during installation or your installation will go into a reboot loop when plase 2 of installation starts.
Tux, because Linux doesn't need AHCI drivers.
Since I discovered the HP "make a bootable thumb drive from a directory holding the O/S files of your choice" utility for running BIOS flashers from I removed my last floppy drive and binned it.
I've been slipstreaming drivers into XP CD images with nLite to get round the RAID / AHCI / other drivers install issue for a while now. Makes life so much simpler than sitting through the CD boot process only to find that the damned thing didn't notice me thumping the shit out of F6 a while back.
I will admit to a slight lump in the throat as I unscrewed it and lobbed it into the obsolete parts box though.....
Just a footnote. NeXT Computer had to do Apple one better. The second machine, the NeXTSTation (sic) came out and it had a 2.88 mb SCSI floppy. SCSI ! An expensive SCSI drive and cable with an expensive 2.88mb floppy.
Just the thing thing to pop into the beautiful 'pizza box', then look at the beautiful screen (where you might see perfect Postscript Japanese characters, for the first time) and type on the beautiful keyboard. Then print from a beautiful matching printer.
Where would it end?!
Ah, yes, back in the day when Zip was still only 100MB (and having suffered through two click-o-death drive failures), I opted for a little external storage thing called a Shark Drive, mainly because it held 250MB on it's heavy little 2" x 2" metal-clad cartridges, which contained a rigid disc media, I believe.
The unusual thing is that it connected to the PC and drew power through the keyboard PS/2 plug on the PC, the connector having a pass-through.
Still have it (and several cartridges) stuck away in a drawer somewhere. Unfortunately drivers were win98 only, though it prob would have worked on w2k, didn't try it.
Before people wax too poetic on just computers they ought to remember the Sony Mavica cameras that used floppies, I still remember the FD-95 my workplace had, It's hard to believe it was once considered an expensive and high end piece of equipment.
What some people haven't noticed is floppies have gone downhill quality wise for years. My father had a 8088 from 1984 that I used in college and up to 1991, still booting off of one 5 1/4 floppy for the OS and another for the program/storage. I also had my 3 1/2 DOS floppies from 1994 that I kept until about 1999.
The last time I bought any floppies was in 2000, and all of them lasted less than three months before going bad. USB keys are everywhere now, but I prefer SD cards; I keep waiting for someone to make an array to plug in a few dozen of them for the equivalent of a live tape library of backup storage. I can dream, can't I?
I have built more than just a few computers, with Linux of course... For my own machines I always included a legacy device that the BIOS would still support... a genuine 5.25 teac FD55G drive.
That is if anyone remembers, an awesome 1.2 Mb "real" floppy (1.6Mb for this floppy monster)
About once a year I would actually write something cryptic to it just because I could.
maybe a word processor .odt file writing to the disk formatted in ext2 (did I mention that it is Linux)
If I wanted to really reach back I might put in a 360K (yes I actually have two that function.)
In teaching computer science to a class of young students they would be fascinated to see a machine (externally demonstrated) actually move and do something... like watching a steam locomotive, they were slightly visceral, they got a reaction of interest.
But something happened last year, I built my latest almost super computer and decided it was time. I have not even reacted to the existence of 3.5's for about ten years... so why would the exclusion of its predecessor cause emotion... it is after all a true antique.
That was it. The last of the dinosaurs.
So I put it on display near its big brother the teacosaurus 8.75
Maybe I will make a little viking ship and put a 5.25 floppy in it and set it on fire in the backyard swimming pool.
There's a lot of airliners out there that will need upgrades then... most airliners use 1.44MB floppies to load data into their flight computers.
Scary to think that while in the air you are at the mercy of a "Floppy read error: file not found. Abort, Retry or Cancel?"
Now I've got Echelon after me...
As mentioned before, if you have some newfangled SATA or SCSI driver that your choice of windows doesn't support, you are prompted to press F6 to load these drivers.
And it looks for them at drive A:
The only other way to work around it, is to use nLite or vLite to create a combination windows disk with the drivers already embedded.
Which may cause stress if you're in an organisation that requires new software to be assessed before being implemented into procedure. Not something you can cassually download from the net and try out see if it works.
Yet, to this day, Microsoft insists that you have two options:
The A: drive, or you can get nicked. Your choice.
Do you expect them to go back and rewrite the installer for XP and 2003, should they do 2000 whilst they're at it?
Vista and newer all support sensible loading of drivers from a CD or DVD, 2003 generally includes any useful drivers (out of the box HP SAS cards boot fine).
For anything else HP sell a USB thumb drive that has a switch on the side, one way is a normal (very small 64MB) mass storage drive, the other way emulates a floppy.
If you're a corporation, why on earth are you installing XP the manual way? Get your staff a few "WDS/RIS for dummies" type guides and move to network deployment. You can add the drivers on the server and get it all installing unattendedly across your network in a fraction of the time.
Also, if you're adamant on doing things the manual way you don't need nlite... you can slipstream the drivers into an install and burn your own disk using MS tools and some CD burning software.
As he was cleaning out the garage two Saturdays ago, a friend suddenly realized that his only copy of his Doctoral dissertation was on a PC he was about to recycle. It was a DEC Rainbow, with an aftermarket 10Meg harddrive. It still booted after bitching about the CMOS battery ... Fortunately, I was there & advised him not to shut it off until we recovered the data.
I managed to find a couple 5 1/4s that still work in my stash, and copied the required files to them. Then I copied the newly created floppies to 720K 3 1/2s on one of my legacy DOS machines (it took me a few minutes to remember how to tell the DOS box how to read the DEC 400K format). The 720Ks were in turn copied by my ten year old Win2K box, via USB 1.0, to a thumbdrive.
Floppy disks aren't really dead, not quite yet. Rather, they are retired but still useful, occasionally. Kinda like me :-)
The Rainbow is now down in my machine room, connected to my small cluster of vaxen via ThickNet. It looks happy, with it's newly minted BSD sh prompt. Vampire taps'll do that do a desktop PC ...
@jake: Come and visit us at The Vintage Computer Forum. There's lots of us there who like, and run, that old stuff.
I like floppies. The other day I took a Sharp PC4501 laptop, which only has 720K floppies, and connected it to the internet using it's internal 1200 baud modem. I was able to download the local weather report with htget and view the html file. Telnet to some BBSs was also good over both PPP and plain serial, though slow. It's fun to play with a floppy only system instead of the, essentially unlimited resource, systems we all have now.
Yeah, one of 'em.
I have a dozen or so single-partition MS/PC/Free-DOS systems in a relay rack. They are standalone systems, for specific clients, and have a single KVM to switch between them.
Most rarely boot anymore, but occasionally one of my clients needs a little help. Someone already commented on CNC machines (my Bridgeport runs what it claims is PCDOS 3.26b, but as near as I can tell it's MSDOS 3.3), most Vet clinics which can do in-house blood work use blood machines that run FreeDOS on Intel 8080 boxes, there are a lot of POS machines that run DOS of one description or another and I still have contracts with greenhouses that use DOS 2.x or 3.x for climate & control systems. Etc.
Echoing a similar comment earlier, I don't think I managed to achieve anything of note on a floppy without some kind of error after about 2000.
Funny that when your OS depended on them (loading Gem from 5¼" floppies) and all your documents were held on them (cute 3" disks for your PCW512) they seemed as reliable as reliable could be, but once they got whiff of their impending obsolescence they became recalcitrant and downright annoying to have to use. I used to reach over to the dusty box that contained my boot recovery & tools disks with trepidation as I *knew* that at least one of the disks would start acting up.
I binned the last of mine a few years ago and haven't had a drive in any of my machines for at least 5 years.
Good riddance, my only slightly floppy chum.
Regarding decompressing SoftPaqs, you can always use Virtual Floppy Drive (vfd).
BIOS' can get flashed from USB (providing the BIOS supports it) or CD. My copy of XP hasn't needed F6 for ages, thanks to DriverPacks.
Now if only a large conglomerate hadn't invested all that money in a brand new optical format, we could dispense with this spinny stuff entirely.
Hitachi's offering as The Next Big Thing to replace the 5 1/4" floppy AFAIR.
Sony's 3.5" beasties won the argument, leaving Hitachi with a design, an investment in manufacturing capability and no customers. Cue suralan looking to screw somebody on component prices for his el cheapo products while not giving a rat's arse about being compatible with anything else.
It was used in the Spectrum +3 after Amstrad acquired Sinclair Research. I had one but only for about 6 months as the FDD mechanism was horribly unreliable - at least for me. 160k on each side IIRC?
Ah those were the days.
And in reply to an earlier post I used to get something like 900Kb onto the 3.5" DS DD floppy/stiffies in my Atari ST by formatting them with 82 tracks and 11 sectors/track instead of the MS-DOS compatible 80 and 9. These were good quality 3M discs bought in the early 90s and AFAIK they are still working. I know the ST is with its Rainbow TOS v1.04
The 3" disk was used on their PCW8256 and PCW8512 word processor CPM machines. Also, the CPC664 (disk version of the tape loading 464) and the CPC6128 used them.
When Amstrad bought out Sinclair and re-launched the Spectrum, the Spectrum +3 made use of them - was basically the same style case as the CPC6128. The Spectrum +2 was the tape loading version.
"Steve Jobs gets to say "I told you so." "
So basically you're saying that we will have to endure flash as the only RIA platform for another 10 years or so, and that it might be truly obsolete within the next century, if we're lucky. Hardly reassuring.
Also, joke appart, the iMac's lack of floppy drive (or any external drive, for that matter) was not a wonderful insight: everyone knew floppies were ultimately doomed, it was yet another gratuitous functionality withdrawal. I can sell boxes today with no keyboard, no standard USB, no SD card reader, no nuthin; my device might be unusable as is, if the marketting dept does its job in 20 years I'll be a visionary wizz. as keyboards, USB, mice and all will be things of the past. Wait, such an unusable brick does exist already. I guess I will have to "invent" a device with no input or output methods at all. Screens (especially the "touch" variety) are so last millennium. Granted, my device won't be usable at all, but in 50 years time it will be hailed as a piece of visionary anticipation.
We could've gotten rid of floppies much sooner, except that there never was a clear-cut replacement. There were plenty contenders, of course. It also would've helped if peecee clones would've moved to allow booting from many, many more types of devices much sooner.
Now, of course, we have usb sticks, and you can even boot from them. And the cheap ones will silently lose half your data. A worthy successor to the floppy, I say.
Unhappy memories from my mac support days of installing M$ Orifice on all the office Macs many moons ago from something like 15 x 3.5" floppies. Think I did about a dozen before I laid my hands on a 20MB SCSI disk to copy them onto.
In another job there was a server upgrade ongoing (to Win NT 3.51 no less!) which required all the old 386 boxes to be upgraded to Win 3.0 and LanMan 1.1 or some such nonsense. I think that took about 12 floppies to do.
Many an afternoon was spent staring out of office windows waiting for hours on end for them to finish munching through one floppy and asking for another.
I got back to floppies a few days ago... I even bought an external floppy drive on eBay for 10 euros ;)
I use them with musical instruments, and somehow it was a great feeling to use floppies again. They were pretty reliable, I can't remember many failures. It got worse with CDs, and it was a shame with DVDs. The only thing that I always disliked about floppies was their speed, and of course, their capacity by someday. But for MIDI files they're still great of course ;)
I wish there would have been a good successor to the floppy drives, maybe even with compatibility, but instead we got about 20 different SmartCompactMediaFlashCards... and USB keys, which are the only alternative that I really appreciate.
They're almost entirely dead at work, except when installing XP and needing driver disks, or booting to install versions of Unix when the optical drive doesn't work for some reason.
At home, though, I still have a taste for retro DOS gaming - and that often means floppies. They were never the most reliable of beasts, but modern drives aren't as high quality as the old ones as far as I can see, and old drives are worn out. I know they never tended to be completely reliable, but it does seem it's even harder these days.
There appear to be a couple of floppy disk emulators - an expensive (250 Euros) one from IPCAS, and a more homebrew ish (but probably more functional) one from http://hxc2001.free.fr/floppy_drive_emulator/index.html that works with home computer as well as PCs. It might even be worth buying one, as I like having access to the data on floppies, but retain no love for actually using the unreliable things.
Above all, I certainly don't miss 20+ disk floppy installs, and loved the first CDROM drives..
Windows Server 2003 backup utility still tries to write a boot FLOPPY for full backups with no other options (like a USB stick or CD or write an image of the boot disk somewhere handy for later).
I know there are other backup utils which wouldn't need a floppy, but seriously M$, come on.
Anyone know what 2008/2010 are like for native backup?
In the good ole' days, floppies were sort of public domain, in that if you wanted to give someone a file, you gave them a floppy. You too would have been the recipient of files at some point, so there was a population of very cheap file storage objects that migrated around the office/class/street.
Now, writing a CD that can be read by everybody (so not UDF, then) is too much trouble, and USB flash keys are too expensive to just give away (£5 for a cheap one instead of 20p for a floppy).
Until Flash keys get to 50p, or CDR UDF read/write becomes ubiquitous, passing a file around will remain a process of "borrow recipient's key, ignore the porn on it, write file". Which won't work at all on corporate laptops where the "new device install" won't work anyway.
Unless it's a really huge file or highly confidential, in which case you use a CD or a DVD.
Not being rewritable is an advantage for two reasons: firstly, you get a nice back-up which you can keep in a drawer for a few years, and secondly, confidential data doesn't get leaked through somebody reusing the media for some other purpose.
Oh, we all call all of these insertable magnetic media floppies nowadays...
...but when I was younger it was an insult, and a 'certificate of incompetence' to call a 3.5 a floppy. It was called a diskette! And don't you doubt it!
I admit in more recent years making such distinction played a less relevant role towards establishing your reputation as a pro. But here at the IT department all geeks currently present remember these days all to well.
As I remember the BBC & Acorn machines formatted the '1.44MB' disks to 1.6MB under their ADFS. I think it was on the BBC Master Compact computer that my brother and I wrote drivers that used the trick of varying sector and track sizes to fit about 1.8MB on the same disk. How we wondered at the puny skills of Microsoft.
Halogen days indeed.
If I remember correctly (and I never used Acorn machines), the disk format used was substantially different than on the PC.
There were, in fact, 1.8MB PC disks used in commercial products - most specifically by OS/2 Warp. XDFcopy had to used to create the disk and XDFLOPPY.FLT was the filter driver to read it.
Unfortunately whilst it worked on most drives, it did not work on absolutely everything and, IIRC, it was slightly harder to find disks that were 1.8MB capable rather than 1.44MB.
On a similar note, Microsoft once planned to do automatic floppy insertion detection - unfortunately two incompatible schemes were in use by the manufacturers. For the sake of compatibility they didn't bother.
I never did get around to using 2.88Mb disks
When we went shopping for floppies at the time we'd always buy the 1.44MB disks. They had to be reformatted for ADFS from DOS but with that detail done they worked just fine at a capacity of 1.6MB. The format was different but the physical media exactly the same.
Having said that we would go for the better quality floppies. The really cheap DOS disks did tend to die quite quickly.
Any time some company wants a bit of free press, they make a big announcement about how they're going to stop making/selling such-and-such a nearly out-of-date technology. And every time, without fail, journalists across the land run the story, giving the company the free press they're after.
Come on El Reg, rise above it...
The article wasn't clear (well, it wasn't to me anyway) as to whether Sony is going to stop making actual floppy drives or just the diskettes.
There is one thing that I'm pretty sure about--we're not quite there yet. Yes, machines boot from USB, CD, network and other places a lot more easily than they used to. Yet if you support multiple generations of computers, have a vintage computer collection or will admit to having either of those situations at home (as I do) floppies are the one thing you have that will pretty much work anywhere. Sure, they're slow, of limited capacity and occasionally they'll let you down, but when you have a sick computer or want a quick and easy way to run some other utility that cannot run when your OS is running, a floppy diskette is a pretty sure bet. Sometimes it is even faster to prepare one than it is to goof around with making a bootable CD or USB stick.
Dell isn't floppy-free yet either. It's quite possible to order at least an OptiPlex with a factory installed floppy drive right up to this day. I usually do--the difference is like $9, so why not? Wherever the motherboard supports it, I put one in every build.
You can have my PS/2 ports and the Model M that's plugged into the keyboard one when you pry them from my cold dead hands. Having ports of different shapes is great when you've got a computer in some dark place and you're trying to connect something. USB connectors are a pain in the rear in this regard. I can insert parallel, serial, VGA, PS/2 and other cables the right time by feel every time. Yet USB still eludes me...oh never mind, there I go again. I'll get my coat.
Mine's the one with the 2.88MB diskettes in the pocket. (I note with pleasure that you can still buy these new from at least one company right now in April 2010.)
The best floppy experience I had was with a motherboard - I don't remember the make - which I needed the flash to the latest BIOS.
The BIOS flash program would only work from an MS-DOS floppy. The path to the new BIOS file was hardcoded, including A:\, so I couldn't get around it using a CD-ROM floppy emulation.
After hours of searching a houseful of geeks I finally uncovered a floppy drive, and eventually, a disc as well, only to find out that the motherboard itself - here's the genius - didn't have a floppy controller.
Here's the enterprise-y version: IBM used (maybe still does) distribute firmware upgrades to its (scsi) disks as a CD image. Very useful. Then some manager at an IBM hard disk drive plant had a severe case of foot-in-mouth (``those drive models may only be used at most 8 hours a day'') after a fault surfaced in a certain well-regarded line of disks, and IBM, after some soul searching, sold its plants to hitachi. Next time I looked into upgrading and de-dodgifying of hard drive firmware, I thus had to deal with hitachi's take on things.
For their travelstar line they didn't supply a single iso image with all the firmware files on it, but instead a set of 10 or so floppy images, without explaining what model drive needed what disk, so you had to write them all to disk. This collection of floppy images was available from IBM, for their thinkpad lines, that shipped with hitachi disks. The very same thinkpad lines, notably T and X, shipped without even the possibility of obtaining a floppy drive for them. They didn't even sell usb ones as accesoires.
Personally I believe that firmware updates must be available in a form that the basic model can access without hassle, but well, colour me a demanding customer for that.
Ah! Takes me back. My Heath H8's separate H17 floppy box used single-sided, single-density, hard-sectored 5.25" disks. You could get 90K on 'em once formatted for CP/M. HDOS left you a little over 100K, I think. And the wonderful KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK! as the Wangco drive heads made contact with the media.
...is not due to the storage life of the media it's stored in, but the means to play it back.
After all, who do you know able to read and copy/save those 5 1/4" floppies, 3" Amstrad WPC disks, Sinclair Microdrives, etc? My ancient Apricot's 3.5" DSDD 720K disks crash my XP PC. There may be specialist conversion firms out there, but that only confirms how fragile modern data is and why my loft is full of hard copies of stuff my friends point at and laugh at me for.
Printers? Oh yeah, I also worked my way through a Diablo daisywheel (£500), an Epson 9pin dot matrix (£300), a Canon portable inkjet (£200), and many others before settling on a modern HP inkjet, a big f*ck*ff, networked, HP Colour LaserJet and a Samsung mono laser I've now had for over ten years because it's only been fed £20 worth of toner since I bought it!...
Paris because her copy book was blotted long ago.
I live on a small South Pacific Island (Samoa). Had to bypass use of a printer that went down on a 10 year old NT Server. A replacement printer (or any) was unavailable for a couple of weeks.
Hey copy printer to file then to floppy. I have a similiar printer at base, rename file .prn, copy .prn /b LPT1. Viola saved by the floppy.
Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019