'Floppy' history as other formats take over

March 06, 2000|By Stephen Lynch | Stephen Lynch,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Floppy Disk, the abused but loyal companion of computer users everywhere, has died of obsolescence. He was 48.

Friends and relatives mourned the passing of the mercurial storage format, which one acquaintance described as "hard working, but a little square." It wasn't clear whether Floppy would be buried or used as a coaster.

"Honestly, the day of the floppy is over," said Jon Robison, worldwide director of product marketing for Iomega Corp. "It just comes down to capacity."

It was Iomega, in fact, that hastened Floppy's demise. In 1995, it introduced the Zip, a disk format that holds 100 megabytes of data, or 70 times that of the 3.5-inch diskette. Consumers also began trading more information via e-mail around that time. But the fatal blow came this past holiday season, when recordable compact-disc drives and DVD players were the hot consumer buys. About 5 million recordable CD drives were sold in the fourth quarter, a 216 percent increase from 1998, said Wolfgang Schlichting, research manager for removable storage at International Data Corp., an analytical firm in Massachusetts.

The ability to record was the only thing that kept Floppy viable against digital competitors, Schlichting said. After more consumers began saving computer data on CDs and mixing their own music discs, Floppy -- along with the audio cassette -- was doomed.

To add insult to injury, when Apple Computer released its iMac home computer in 1998, it didn't bother to include a disk drive. It was a tragic end for a celebrity that once rode in the pocket protectors of every Silicon Valley programmer.

Floppy, conceived by Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu in 1952, began his career in research labs, trading basic equations in binary. But his ambitions soon outgrew academia: After signing a recording contract with IBM Corp., Floppy first toured American corporations in the late 1970s.

Then came the go-go '80s, Floppymania and his triumphant appearance on "The Tonight Show." During the health craze, Floppy shrunk his 8-inch square frame by half. The pressure of fame weighed heavily, however, and security concerns forced Floppy to enclose himself in a hard, plastic case in the late 1980s.

He gained a sense of style, though, crashing software-release parties draped in bright colors, and trying to ditch the name "Floppy" for a short time in favor of "Stiffy" and "Crunchy," nicknames that never really stuck.

It seemed the party would last forever. After all, Bill Gates -- Bill Gates! -- said in 1981 that 640,000 bytes of memory, or about half of Floppy's capacity, "ought to be enough for anybody."

But then came the all-night parties, the viruses. Executives say Floppy's ego was out of control, demanding better carrying cases and dates with supermodels. Floppy dried out in 1996, but by then it was too late: 1.44 megabytes of storage space didn't cut it anymore.

By then, the CD had taken over the world's stereos. In music stores, the shelf space for CDs expanded as full-length, prerecorded cassette sales plummeted from a 1988 high of 450 million. CDs first surpassed cassettes in 1992, selling 470 million to the analog format's 366 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. This year, cassettes are expected to make up only a fraction of all album sales.

CDs have acquired a familiarity, both in music and CD-ROM formats, said Dean Sanderson, a product manager with Hewlett-Packard.

"With the quality of CDs, and the fact that they're so affordable and mobile -- all that means that they will win," he said. "And some of it is just appearance -- people like the look of them."

In 1994, the CD overcame its most glaring flaw: The first recordable CD drive was unveiled.

At first, it was a limited technology. Pinnacle Micro, an Irvine, Calif., company that has produced CD-R drives for five years, sold its first unit for about $3,250, said Rick Huhnke, director of marketing. But last year, the price finally dropped within reach of most computer buyers -- slow-speed drives sell for about $200-$300.

There are two CD recording standards: CD-R, which is write-once technology, and CD-RW, which allows users to rewrite to a CD thousands of times. Combined, International Data Corp. predicts 30 million drives will be sold this year. The format is steaming toward ubiquity.

"Eventually, everything analog will be obsolete," Huhnke said. "We see people putting old cassettes and LPs on digital formats, archiving them. Once it's on CD, it's permanent."

Even Iomega is shifting more of its attentions to CD-RW formats. Zip, after all, is proprietary. CDs are everywhere.

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