As the IS manager for a 32-member IT department, Scott Taylor is responsible for data spread throughout the IT infrastructure at furniture manufacturer Smed International Inc. There is one place Taylor doesnt want data stored—on floppy-disk drives in the Calgary, Alberta, companys 800 desktop and 400 laptop PCs.
“I would prefer not to see them anymore,” Taylor said. “We do still have some use for them on the plant floor. [But] when we buy new stuff, its rewritable [CD drives].”
The worlds top computer makers seem to be listening to Taylor and others like him. Officials at Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. said they intend to eliminate the floppy drive from new desktop computers as soon as possible. The $7 it costs to include a floppy drive is better spent on other technologies or could be cut to help reduce manufacturing costs and list prices, they said. But for corporate desktops, the transition hinges on giving administrators and users a better replacement.
Desktop computing is perhaps the last bastion of the floppy drive. Many laptop computers havent included a floppy drive as standard equipment in years. Floppies have long been less desirable in servers, which have more stable networking and for which drivers are handled with care.
Several years ago, thin-client devices such as HPs UltraSlim series eliminated floppy drives entirely, as did Apple Computer Inc.s Macintosh.
Dell, of Round Rock, Texas, last month took a small step toward elimination of the floppy disk by relegating floppy drives to the option list for high-end Dimension consumer desktops. For its corporate desktops, known as OptiPlexes, Dell made floppies an option on the small-form-factor SX260 model late last year and will do so for all OptiPlexes in refreshes early this summer, officials said.
HP later this year plans to make floppy drives an option on its D310 and D510 series of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.-based corporate desktops, officials said. That will happen in conjunction with an overall product line refresh. Next year, the Palo Alto, Calif., company will consider eliminating the floppy drive entirely. Floppies were hotly debated when planning the Media Center PC, but HP opted to keep them, officials said.
For its workstations, Sun, of Santa Clara, Calif., ships floppy drives only with the entry-level Sun Blade 150. The drives are an option for the Sun Blade 2000 and arent available at all for the thin-client Sun Ray. Within a year, a floppy drive will be just an option for the 150 as well, although Sun will offer an external USB (Universal Serial Bus) drive, said a Sun spokesman. Sun encourages use of CD-ROMs for driver updates, the spokesman said.
The particular technology facilitating the replacement of floppies is less important than actually getting rid of the medium, IT buyers said. If recordable CD/DVD, flash memory or portable hard drives come to dominate, the benefit of their large capacities and unique feature sets will help ensure that floppy disks arent long mourned, they said. For example, CD/DVD media doesnt wear out, flash memory can sometimes be shared with handheld devices, and portable hard drives can be upgraded with traditional magnetic technologies.
As users transition to newer kinds of removable storage, its vital that their computer BIOS first has bootable support for the new types of connections they require, including USB, FireWire, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. In addition, users must be mindful that while a portable hard drive may offer more capacity, it also costs a lot more.
Officials at Dell, HP and Sun predict the floppy disk will be around for at least four more years because of the sheer volume of existing computers with older BIOSes.
Indicative of the outlook for floppies was market analyst Gartner Inc.s decision last year to cease its coverage of the floppy-drive market.
“Factory revenue for legacy 1.44MB floppies began declining in 2000, even though that was the year when shipments reached their highest point. Forty-two percent of the new PCs shipped in 2006 [will] not have a legacy floppy drive,” said Gartner analyst Fara Yale, in San Jose, Calif.
What happens after that is too far out to predict, Yale said, but “if Dell and others decide to leave the floppy out of business PCs, it could decline faster than our projections.”
Nevertheless, the floppy disk will be with us for some time.
Smeds Taylor would like to see floppy drives go, but because he has so much legacy hardware that doesnt have up-to-date BIOSes with support for newer storage connectivity technology or that doesnt have higher-capacity options, he is not sure he could get rid of the drives immediately.
“Id have to do some legwork to see the effect. We have a lot of legacy stuff,” Taylor said.
Teac America Inc.s Data Storage Products division, a drive manufacturer based in Montebello, Calif., sees a gradual sunset for the floppy disk.
“It is true that not too many people use the floppy, but frankly, the floppy drive is the cheapest insurance on a PC to guarantee that you can easily transfer small files,” said Les Luzar, general manager at the Teac division. “Even last year, we were still selling [5.25]-inch [disk drives]. Some people still buy them.”
Even as replacement technologies mature and gain support, “kids give these floppies away, but youre not going to be giving your USB drive away,” Luzar said.
But even Luzar will hardly mourn the floppy drives long slide into oblivion.
“If I had to put money on it, Id say in five years, there wont be much market left,” Luzar said. “Ive been in the floppy business 21 years. I hardly use mine.”
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