Its happening: 3.5-inch floppy disk drives are disappearing. Theyre following a well-worn path to the final resting place of the 5.25-inch and the 8-inch drives. The demise of the now-ancient standard wont happen all at once, but with Dells recently announced phasing out of 3.5-inch floppy disk drives in the companys popular Dimension desktop line, others following suite—Gateway and eMachines, say—is only a matter of time. Soon, that pocket-size diskette and the drives that accepted it will be nothing but pleasant, portable memories.
The floppy disk has a long (in technology terms) history. It first appeared on the high-tech landscape in the late sixties in the form of a big, thin plastic disk housed in an eight-inch-square black jacket. An oblong hole in each side left the recording surface open to the drive and also, unfortunately, to clumsy fingers. Many client/terminal systems used these drives—the DEC text-management system I used at my first job, for example. At the end of each day, you had to perform a complicated series of maneuvers with the DEC system to back up your data. I hated handling the large disks, always worrying that Id accidentally bend one.
In 1981, the IBM PC debuted with the 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. The disks looked like exact albeit smaller replicas of 8-inch disks, and they were just as open to the elements. The 5.25-inch media were a little less clumsy than the 8-inch and less prone to damage, though. Desks around the world were littered with the little paper sleeves that the disks came in. In the mid-eighties, the 3.5-inch floppy disk that was no longer floppy arrived. The recording material now came in a hard plastic shell with a nifty spring-loaded metal cover that slid aside as you placed the disk into the drive. There was no more fear of damage—well, less fear—and the disks fit in a pocket, so they were incredibly portable. The advent of high-density technology allowed far more information to fit than on the older 5.25–inch media. As the new disks gained in popularity, 5.25-inch disks began collecting dust. For a time, PC manufacturers maintained the larger drive. There were even combo 3.5-/5.25-inch drives that fit in one drive bay. Still, the smell of death was on the larger format.
At home, my collection of the varied drive formats includes hundreds of 3.5-inch diskettes (as we took to calling the smaller disks) for both the Mac and the PC. The PC I bought last year has a drive that can read all types of PC disks. My 3.5-inch, low-density Mac disks are so old, though, that only drives in first-generation Macs can read them. I actually bought a Mac Plus for $1 at a garage sale so I could try reading these disks, but the system didnt come with a keyboard or mouse so Im still a step or two away from recovering that old data.
With the demise of the 3.5-inch drive, loss of access to archived data may be the most significant problem. We have plenty of other methods for easily sharing data among PCs. The USB mass storage device, typically the size of a large key fob, largely fulfills data-exchange needs for USB-equipped PCs. The smallest USB key has far greater capacity than a 1.44MB 3.5-inch disk, fits in a pocket, and works almost exactly like a disk drive. The only hitch is that a USB key cant boot a PC—yet. Dell plans to incorporate this capability into its Dimensions once a standard for doing so becomes available. USB storage aside, desktop users have the option of burning data to CDs and DVDs readable by other PCs. Beyond that, most corporate desktops and a growing number of home systems are networked—many wirelessly—so worries about getting data from one PC to another are rapidly diminishing.
Heres the thing—after 3.5-inch drives have disappeared, were still going to need to look at those long-neglected disks and save all that old data. If you think there will always be a 3.5-inch drive around somewhere, you may be right. But then again, how many 5.25-inch floppy drives have you seen lately?
Im sure Im not the only one with 50 or so 5.25-inch floppy disks in a couple of disk cases at home. Mine primarily contain data from my old Epson 8080 computer—a DOS-based system that never even got a whiff of Windows, CD-ROMs, or 3.5-inch floppy disks. I stupidly assumed I would just access my disks through this PC. Then what? I cant move the data off the system. Our columnist John C. Dvorak advised that I pull the 5.25-inch drive from the Epson and install it in another PC—perhaps my old 180-MHz Gateway system. Id then need to install a network card in the Gateway and move all the old files to a shared drive that I could access via my CD-R-equipped Sony VAIO PC. I have a similar story about my seven 1GB Iomega Jaz cartridges that contain tons of data from jobs going back nearly ten years. The drives didnt like the Windows NT and 2000 operating systems I used at work and nearly all of the cartridges ended up partially corrupted. I pulled most of the data and moved it to my home PC by hooking a Jaz drive to a SCSI PC Card in a notebook computer, then used LapLink to transfer the data to my VAIO.
Do you see what Im getting at? I couldnt depend on the Jaz drive to be around, and Ive also had to jump through hoops to recover my data from old 5.25-inch disks. I dont want to have to do that again. So starting this weekend, I will begin pulling all of the data from my 3.5-inch disks into folders on my VAIO and then burn this stuff to a few CD-Rs. I would suggest you start examining all your 3.5-inch floppies, too.
I am confident that CD-R drives will not be removed from PCs any time soon. I think. Okay, I hope. Umm, maybe I should just burn all my files to DVD-Rs.
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