Diskettes seldom used, ever-present

Relics: Despite infrequent use, the small-capacity disk remains a fixture on most PCs.

February 20, 2003|By Peter Rojas | Peter Rojas,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

With its measly 1.44 megabytes of storage capacity, the 3.5-inch diskette is an anachronism in a world of 20-gigabyte MP3 players, DVD burners and tiny memory cards that can hold hundreds of digital photos. Yet like a lingering party guest who hasn't realized that it's time to go home, it somehow holds on as a form of removable storage.

Diskette drives are still found on most computers, even though few people make much use of them.

According to Disk/Trend, a company in Mountain View, Calif., that monitors the disk-drive industry, fewer than 10 percent of computer users store data on diskettes.

Most people have discovered that it is simply easier to e-mail small text files, even if it's just to the person sitting at the next cubicle, rather than put the files on a diskette. And diskettes don't provide much space for storing such large media files as digital photos, video or MP3 audio.

Another function of the diskette, as an emergency disk to boot up a PC in case of a crash, has all but disappeared, now that Windows uses its installation CD-ROM for that.

But while the diskette is fading, as its cousins the 5.25-inch and 8-inch floppy disks did before the dawn of the 21st century, it is taking its time.

Disk/Trend estimates that about 70 percent of the Windows PCs sold in the United States today have diskette drives. Most manufacturers have decided the low cost of adding a drive to a PC (about $8 for a desktop computer) makes it practical to just keep them rather than risk confusing or alienating consumers.

Prior to the advent of the CD-ROM in the early 1990s, the diskette was undisputedly the No. 1 removable storage medium in the world. Tens of billions of diskettes have been sold since the format's introduction in 1981. At the diskette's peak, global annual production was about 5 billion disks.

But as CD recorders for PCs grew cheaper, and the software industry shifted to the CD-ROM and the Internet for distribution, diskette sales steadily declined. Three years ago, 645 million diskettes were sold in the United States. The number is expected to drop to 400 million this year and to 120 million by 2006.

Imation, the world's largest manufacturer of diskettes, remains committed to the format. "We intend to be there until the end," said Michael Noer, the company's global product marketing manager. "Our revenues for this business are stable, and we're actually gaining market share as others drop out. We're also seeing an increase in demand for diskettes in China and Latin America, places where virtually all PCs have diskette drives but relatively few have CD-ROM drives or are connected to the Internet."

There has been no shortage of would-be successors to the diskette, with a dizzying array of options - including Zip disks, Jaz disks, SuperDisks, Memory Sticks, Secure Digital cards, CompactFlash cards, SmartMedia cards, USB drives, and the endless acronyms of optical media storage: CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and DVD+RW. All can hold far more data than the diskette.

Yet it is the abundance of options that has kept the diskette around so long. Had the computer industry simply settled on a standard, the diskette would have died out years ago. Somewhat haphazardly, the rewriteable CD, or CD-RW, has emerged as the new de facto standard, said Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend. "Nearly all PCs sold in the U.S. today come with a CD-ROM drive, the majority of them with a CD-RW drive as well."

Computer makers have had mixed success in eliminating the diskette drive. Apple caused a stir in 1998 when it introduced the driveless iMac. The move initially stimulated a brisk business in external drives in trademark iMac colors, but few Mac users now appear to be unhappy about the lack of diskette drives on their computers.

Dell, in 1999, and IBM, in 2000, introduced "legacy-free" computers that came without diskette drives, using the space saved to make the machines more compact. Both models proved to be disasters and were taken off the market. Even so, Dell is trying again.

"It's time to retire the diskette," said Mark Vena, product director for Dell's Dimension line of PCs. Later this year, when consumers order a computer from Dell, the default option will be the absence of a diskette drive, and customers will have to pay extra if they want one. (The drives will continue to be standard equipment on Dell's business line of PCs.)

Vena acknowledged that weaning consumers from diskette drives would not be easy. Market research shows that most are simply accustomed to having one on the PC and therefore believe they need it, he said.

"But when you ask them when was the last time they ever actually used it," Vena said, "the vast majority can't remember."

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