The 3.5-inch floppy disk’s long, slow, unceremonious march toward its death came to an end on Friday, when Sony announced it will end domestic sales of the disk by the end of the year, and end production of the disks by March 2011. Japan’s Mainichi Daily newspaper reported Sony, which commands a 70 percent market share for the disks, sold 12 million floppy disks in fiscal 2009, down from 47 million disks in fiscal 2009. Sony first launched the 3.5-inch disks in 1981. Disk sales within Japan began in 1983.
While extremely popular as a data storage format after it debuted (replacing the 5.25-inch floppy disk), as larger-capacity devices and discs such as USB sticks and blank CDs appeared on the market, computer makers like Dell and Apple gradually withdrew support for the format. Sony has already discontinued manufacturing the disk domestically; most current sales of floppy disks have been to developing countries and India. Now the disks, with their 1.44MB of space, seem destined to languish permanently in a fondly remembered, if largely forgotten, graveyard of ancient technologies.
In the age of non-networking computers, the floppy disk stood as the primary external writable storage device. Even to this day, the format remains an icon, its form serving as a commonly used “Save” icon in applications such as Microsoft Word. In 1998, Apple introduced the iMac, which had no floppy drive. Dell followed suit in 2003, followed by Hewlett-Packard in 2009.
While the disks were known for being susceptible to damage via dust, water and user error (there are urban legend stories aplenty describing users stapling the disks to paper reports), human-computer interaction (HCI) and cognitive science author Donald Norman lauded the disk for its mechanical usability and praised its design. In the first chapter of his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” Norman called the disks a “simple example” of a good design.
“The diskette has a square shape: there are apparently eight possible ways to insert it into the machine, only one of which is correct. What happens if I do it wrong? I try inserting the disk sideways. Ah, the designer thought of that,” he writes. “A little study shows that the case really isn’t square: it’s rectangular, so you can’t insert a longer side. I try backward. The diskette goes in only part of the way. Small protrusions, indentations, and cutouts prevent the diskette from being inserted backward or upside down: of the eight ways one might try to insert the diskette, only one is correct, and only that one will fit. An excellent design.”