The Floppy is Dead! Long Live the ... ?

Now that Dell has finally ditched the venerable floppy disk, David Morgenstern wonders what handy, portable removable-media format will ultimately replace it.

Dell Computer last week announced that it will phase out the built-in floppy drive on its high-end models by the end of the month. And while only the most retro customers will actually miss the venerable format, the alternatives cost may take some getting used to. The whole deal highlights the missing link in the "sneakernet" department.

According to the story, the companys move on the Dimension workstation front continues the trend Dell started on its Inspiron notebooks. Instead of the floppy, Dell now offers its own line of USB plug-in key storage products; a 16MB key is $20, and a 64MB version runs $59.

Now, theres nothing really novel about ditching the floppy drive; after all, Apple Computer did it almost five years ago with the release of the first iMac. (The Mac maker took quite a bit of heat from its installed base of customers; there really wasnt an alternative out of the gate, and third-party peripheral vendors took a while to ship ... well, a USB floppy drive.)

As happens with most technology transitions, over time users figured out that they could do without a floppy drive. As Dell executives pointed out, some of us cant even remember the last time we used a floppy, and certainly customers of a 3-GHz PC would fall into that category.

Despite this recent neglect, in many ways the floppy has proved difficult to replace.

Storage Supersite reader David Swink reflected that the 3.5-inch floppy disk was "a great storage device—its readable, writable and best of all, a shirt-pocket-sized form factor." At the same time, he pointed out that the floppy was also slow and "limited in storage capacity to the point of being virtually useless in todays world of large video and audio file formats."

On the positive side, in addition to the important size and weight considerations, Id add that floppies were relatively robust and best of all, dirt cheap. In addition, the disks were easy for consumers to understand and use.

So how do todays current formats stack up against the floppy?

Most folks consider CD-Recordable/ReWritable technologies the successor of the floppy. But the crown doesnt fit well.

While CD drives are ubiquitous (like floppies) and inexpensive, they are also very slow and difficult to use, and they dont fit the standard shirt or pants pocket. Besides, you wouldnt want to put a piece of dye-based media in your pocket, since its fragile compared with the hard-plastic case of a floppy disk.

DVD media holds more but costs way more. Like the CD, DVD drives are difficult to use, and the discs have the same size problem.

Pint-sized hard drives are fast and offer great capacity. But they are costly—their price is in the investment class for consumers. And while some are small, they are hefty when placed side by side with a floppy.

The USB keys are robust and suitably small. Their price tags, however, are steep when compared with the disposable range of a CD-R disc or a floppy.

In addition, the data keys are somewhat constrained in capacity; 16 or even 64 Megabytes isnt that much of a step up from a floppy. Okay, I admit that theres enough of a difference to make even the entry-level key practical; it can actually hold a couple of documents, whereas a floppy is useless when it comes to storing even a single Quicken file or presentation. Still, the keys with the preferable high-capacity points are much more expensive, out of the price range of a true floppy replacement.

Whats the end result? Perhaps the current, unfortunate de facto situation. The storage format used to transport most of data is the ATA hard disk, the one built into notebook computers. Heavy, yes, but easy to use. And while the hard disk is outrageously expensive, it does come with a free computer and LCD screen.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.