x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The floppy disk turns into a stiff

Sony is to cease production of the 3.5-inch floppy disk, the final exit of the most tangible surviving link between modern computers and the earliest desktops of the 1970s.

It is with a tinge of regret that I note the demise of yet another essential piece of technology history. Sony's announcement that it is to cease production of the 3.5-inch floppy disk next year signals the final exit of the most tangible surviving link between modern computers and the earliest desktops of the 1970s. Chances are you thought it was already extinct. A floppy drive has not been standard on computers for years - Apple omitted it from the first iMac in 1998 and it quickly vanished from most Windows PCs over the following years.

You can, however, buy an external drive that plugs into the USB socket, and the disks themselves are theoretically still available. From 47 million in 2002, Sony reports that it sold 12 million in Japan last year, though that may not reflect actual demand since they usually come in boxes of 10; my guess is that translates into 1.2 million transactions. Personally, I have not bought any for maybe 15 years. I'm fairly sure there's an unopened box somewhere among my things in London. They had their points though: easy to use and reuse, sturdy, reliable, eminently portable. All that is true of memory sticks, of course, but not of CDs.

The tiny 1.44Mb capacity was always the problem. Even before the arrival of image and sound files bigger than a single floppy could hold, software packages often had to be delivered on multiple disks, added to which was the disproportionate bulk of the drive. The term "floppy", incidentally, goes back to the earliest disks, which were an unwieldy eight inches in diameter, housed in a protective but flimsy sleeve, and were flexible to some extent, as was the 5.25-inch successor I remember from the early 1980s. Although the 3.5-inch disk (or "diskette", yuk) was housed in a rigid plastic jacket, the term stuck, I guess to distinguish it from the "hard" or fixed drives already coming in as optional extras.

That brings me to an obscure piece of geek lore. The floppy drive was known as A: on Windows and earlier MS-DOS machines, the hard drive as C: and the optical drive D:, but what was B:? When I saw this question in a computer magazine a few years ago I was surprised that the resident guru had no idea of the answer. I also suddenly felt old. B: was simply a second floppy drive. You used A: for the program disk and B: for documents. Once C: became standard kit, there was no further need for B:.

Talking of computer magazines, here's an anecdote to assuage your natural melancholy in the face of merciless progress. For years these magazines have come with cover disks containing interesting content (games, sample programs, viruses etc). First it was floppies, later CD-ROMs, with a spell of overlap. Of course, the disks just came as part of the magazines, but for some reason the publishers thought it necessary to trumpet that they were "FREE!" - an idea that came unstuck when I saw a leading magazine offering a choice: one version with a free floppy and the other, identical apart from the "free" CD-ROM ? and the price, which was about a pound more.