The Ode: The floppy disk (1971--2010)

The data-storage technology helped create the era of home computing, but when program sizes exploded, its days were numbered.

Floppy disks, as consumers know them, were born in 1971, when IBM commercialized technology designed to replace tape drives. For decades, these fragile devices – which allow computers to read and write data on flexible magnetic disks – were the primary means of storing and transferring files. Matthew Broderick immortalized the original eight-inch floppy in the movie WarGames (1983), when his character used one to program a phone-based modem to hack into what he thought was a video-game company. The 5.25-inch floppy was introduced in 1976 by peripheral manufacturer Shugart Associates.

But it’s the hard-shelled 3.5-inch version of the floppy disk, which was pioneered by Sony in the early ’80s, that will be best remembered, since it coincided with the rise of personal computers for the masses. It was this 1.44 MB disk that became the dominant means of data storage, right up until the late 1990s, when Will Smith’s character used one to defeat aliens (by uploading a virus to their spaceship) in the 1996 movie Independence Day.

For those who grew up with gigabytes of hard drive storage space and comparatively huge-capacity USB thumb drives, it’s difficult to imagine the significant impact that floppy disks had on the consumer adoption of personal computers. To the early PC adopters who recall memorizing MS-DOS commands, floppies were as revolutionary as e-mail. Before client-server office networks and the Internet made transferring data between users as simple as clicking a mouse button, floppy disks gave consumers their first taste of computing freedom by making personal data portable. Working on a file on a home computer, saving it on a floppy, and then transporting it to a work computer was a huge step forward.

Floppies also created the first generation of large-scale consumer software theft. By the early ’90s, floppy-based piracy was rampant enough to compel the Software Publishers Association to produce educational videos aimed at shaming kids into playing nice with copyrighted programs.

Billing himself as Double Def DP (a.k.a. Disk Protector), one corporate rapper issued the following message in 1992: “Did I hear you right, did I hear you sayin’ … that you’re gonna make a copy of a game without payin’? … Don’t copy that floppy.” (The early lesson in intellectual-property rights is immortalized on YouTube.)

By the late ’90s, more-sophisticated applications were already beginning to expose the limitations of floppy disks. Like the tape drives they replaced, the technology began to feel clunky, unreliable and restrictive. As file and program sizes increased, floppy disks simply could not compete with newer inexpensive and larger-format storage formats such as Zip, CD, DVD, and eventually USB.

And yet, floppies were so integral to the public’s concept of personal computing that it was shocked when Apple released the iMac without a floppy drive in 1998. Apple argued that the rise of the Internet and expanding hard drive capacities had rendered the floppy obsolete. Consumers howled initially. Some even bought external floppy drives for their iMacs. But the disk drives quickly fell out of use. Dell dropped floppy disk readers as standard equipment on desktops in 2003, and other computer companies quickly followed suit.

Sony, the lone remaining manufacturer of floppy disks, makes them only for the Japanese market and saw sales decline to 12 million last year from 47 million in 2002. Last month, the tech giant announced that it will yield to the continuing migration to Web-based data storage. It will make its last floppy disk next March.