Friday, January 20, 2006

3.5" Floppy Disk - The Longest Goodbye?

It's hard to believe but the 3.5" Floppy Disk has been an integral part of mainstream computer systems for almost the last 20 years! That's despite being awfully slow (24KB/sec max) and having magnetic media that is far from reliable. Surely the FDD is right up there with VHS and Cassette Tapes for being a standard that has stood the test of time and just refuses to go away. Yet surely the FDD's days are numbered just the same as VHS and Cassette?

The long goodbye to the FDD began as early as the mid 1990's. One major move was in 1998 when Apple made the then brave decision to sell their iMac models without a FDD. At the time many people critisized the move since there was no real alternative removable storage available. Many iMac users had to buy USB floppy drives to fill the gap. Yet the writing had been on the wall for the FDD before 1998.

During the 1990's various improvements on the FDD appeared, most notably the IOMEGA ZIP drives and Panasonic/Imation LS-120 drives. They appeared to signal a new era in removable storage yet despite being technically 'better' units than the humble 3.5" FDD they came and went without being much more than novel add-ons working alongside the FDD. The advent of the CD-Rom and the Internet as storage devices in the late 90's marked another beginning of the end for the FDD. Yet early CD-RW drives were unreliable and Internet access was neither fast nor wide-spread. These two aspects worked in the FDD's favour. The fact that almost every PC has a FDD and that floppies are more or less reliable for temporary data storage has meant that the FDD's exit from the computer world has been extended.

Although Apple led the way by removing the FDD from it's iMac in 1998, it was not until 2002 that other PC vendors began to follow suit. The first place where the FDD disappeared first was in laptop computers. Most laptops shipped since 2002 have not included FDD as standard, although USB FDD options can often still be used. The increase in small form factor desktop units has seen the FDD forced out on that front too. Yet for the most part the FDD remains an important yet hardly used feature of most modern computers.

What does the future hold for the FDD? Surely we'll see the FDD disappear over the coming years? Maybe, maybe not. In all likelyhood the FDD will become a thing of the past in the personal computer, if it hasn't already. Nobody buys a brand new computer today without some kind of removable mass storage device such as DVD-RW & USB storage. USB storage is very cheap now and can be used in many of the places where a FDD is almost essential (i.e. booting for system recovery, BIOS update etc). Yet although the FDD will be religated further to almost obsolite status it's near 100% market saturation will mean that it will not disappear completely anytime soon. Certainly it will continue to be the longest goodbye.


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