Monday, April 26, 2010

Bit by Bit

The floppy is dead. Long live the bit!

Let me date myself right off the bat by saying that the first computer I personally owned had a single 5" floppy disk drive, and of course NO hard drive. Not only that, but the drive was single sided and low density, meaning that its capacity was 80 kilobytes, or about 8 percent of a single megabyte. If you wonder how we were able to do anything useful with something so small, you're right, it was a challenge.

My first attempt to increase capacity was to add an 8" floppy disk which held twice as much. Now we're talking a disk the size of a sheet of letter size paper, and the term "floppy" was highly descriptive. But the 8" ones were already obsolete when I got mine. The 5" size doubled in capacity by writing on both sides, then doubled again by writing in "double density." Now we had reached a whopping 320 kbytes, but of course it didn't end there. The 5" format topped out at 1.2 megabytes before being replaced by the smaller and more durably packaged 3" which immediately jumped from 720k to 1.4 megabytes.

This was a plateau that held up for a remarkably long time. The familiar 3" disk first appeared in Apple's original Mac and the Atari in the early 1980's. In spite of attempts at further technical refinements -- including such things as etching positioning rings into the magnetic platter, and adding optical positioning marks -- the floppy seemed to be big enough for carrying small files, and not likely to reach anything like the capacity it would need to handle really big ones.

Keep in mind that at the time pretty much all software was being distributed on floppy disks. As software grew in complexity and features (often known as "bloat") the number of disks required began to get ridiculous. Windows 3.1 came on about half a dozen of them, but the first version of Windows 95 needed a set of sixteen. Soon we were all maintaining shoeboxes full of disk sets, many of them rubber banded together, with no relief in sight.

Relief did come, of course, in the form of optical media, but these didn't take off as quickly as they might have because the computers of the day were barely adequate to take advantage of them. I recall reading an article in a computer magazine about how to successfully burn a CD. You needed plenty of RAM -- at least 4 to 8 megabytes -- and enough hard drive space to contain a master copy of what was going to be on the CD. Allowing space for your operating system and other software, that meant you needed a whopping 1 gigabyte hard drive at a time when most new PC's came with something in the 100 megabyte range. And don't even think of running another program while the disk burned, or you were sure to turn it into a "coaster" (only useful for resting a beverage on).

Of course it was only a matter of time. Now with terrabyte hard drives, multi-core processors, and multi-gigabytes of RAM we expect our PC's to burn CD's and even DVD's while simultaneously browsing the Internet and playing music. The age of coastering your CD are pretty much passed. Software continues to grow, but we're still in the range where even a lavish production like Adobe Creative Suite can fit on a small set of DVD's including the instructional video. And now high speed internet connections and plentiful space for online storage are threatening to obsolete even optical media. Why bother to keep a disk at all when you can just grab a newer version of whatever it is from an online source whenever you want it?

There's an interesting footnote here about Iomega and the Zip drive -- a technology that could have replaced the floppy for at least a period of time, and nearly did. By using Bernoulli's principle of air flow to "fly" the drive head closer to the magnetic surface of the disk, Iomega succeeded in producing a perfectly useful 100 megabyte disk that was not much larger than the venerably floppy. But they shot themselves in the foot by continually introducing new formats that were not backward compatible. Combined with their failure to license the technology to other manufacturers, the Zip disk remained a niche product until it, too, was rendered obsolete.

By what? The lowly flash memory chip of course. For who would continue to carry around a portable Zip drive and its assorted disks when you could wear a few gigabytes on your key chain? And so it goes. Now after a run of almost 30 years, Sony -- the last major manufacturer to still sell them -- has announced they will discontinue 3" floppy disks. So the floppy is dead at last. But those bits just keep coming.

[Just because they're no longer mass marketed doesn't mean they are not still used and produced. One company, for example - Athana (http://www.athana.com) - will still sell you any size or format of floppy you might need to keep your ancient mainframe or dedicated wordprocessing machine fed. But how much longer will they be readable now that the hardware is obsolete?
It doesn't take long for this to happen. Once a customer brought me a whole shoebox full of 5" floppies to see if I could read and restore them. This is what they had been relying on for backup for years. Not a single one was readable.]

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