New generations of high-capacity diskette drives are on the horizon, including optical diskettes, magnetic floppy disks and hybrids called "floptical" drives.
A number of companies, including International Business Machines Corp., are testing a 3.5-inch internal diskette drive that can read and write 2.88 megabytes of data on a single diskette -- twice the capacity of the current standard and eight times the capacity of the drive used in the original IBM PC.
The only computer to use such a drive currently is a Unix-based work station made by Next Inc.
Although the 2.88MB drives were working well in tests at the annual Comdex/Fall trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month, it may a year or two before they become adopted widely.
And, though 2.88MB drives could become the next standard, they are in danger of being overtaken by still newer technologies.
Toshiba Corp. of Japan has developed a conventional magnetic diskette drive that reads and writes 16 megabytes of data per diskette.
Not to be outdone, two U.S. companies -- Brier Technology Inc. and Insite Peripherals Inc., both of San Jose, Calif. -- displayed diskette drives that combine elements of floppy-disk and optical technologies, yielding "floptical" drives with a capacity of 20 to 40 megabytes.
"Floptical drives could make the 4-megabyte drives obsolete very quickly," said Gilbert Held, director of 4-Degree Consulting of Macon, Ga., a high-technology consulting firm.
Wait a nanosecond . . . 4-megabyte drives? Well, it turns out that the 2.88-megabyte drives are also sometimes referred to as 4-megabyte drives, because that is the theoretical capacity of the diskettes that go inside them.
Formatted to work with the drive, however, the diskette's capacity settles to 2.88 megabytes, the equivalent of about 1,400 pages of double-spaced text.
Most IBM-compatible computers sold in the last two years have offered 1.44-megabyte "high density" disk drives in a 3.5-inch format (which use 2MB diskettes).
Before that, the drive standards were 720 kilobytes (1MB diskettes) and 360 kilobytes, in a larger, 5.25-inch floppy disk format.
Today the 3.5-inch drives, which take up less space, hold more data and are more reliable, are standard. The 5.25-inch drives are reserved mainly for use by executives who have a library of older programs.
The new storage device most likely to be used by other computer-makers appears to be the 2.88-megabyte magnetic diskette drive, which is outwardly indistinguishable from today's models.
The diskettes themselves differ only in the placement of a hole in the plastic casing.
As demonstrated by Brier Technology and Insite Peripherals, the prototypes can pack 20 megabytes of formatted data on a single 3.5-inch diskette using a combination of laser optical tracking and conventional magnetic technologies.
"These will have a dramatic impact on the tape backup companies," said Held, who also is a research analyst for Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm in New York. "When you can put 20 megabytes on a single floptical disk, and you have a 60-megabyte or 80-megabyte hard drive, do you really need tape backup? That's true even for 4-megabyte drives, if you put them in laptop or desktop computers."
IBM and other companies are developing 3.5-inch drives that use lasers to read and write data on mirrorlike optical diskettes, yielding a capacity of 128 megabytes per disk.
At Comdex, there were also displays of a variety of 5.25-inch optical disks that can store more than half a gigabyte (a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes) of data.
These are also expensive, and relatively slow as well, making conventional magnetic hard disks a more attractive option for now.
However, as read-write optical drives emerge, they have the potential to eliminate millions of drawers of office file cabinets.