The Floppy End

I've used and abused my share of removable media for computers. I don't remember whether this dependency started with the cassette tape drive for my Vic-20, or the punch cards and paper tape used by the occasional mainframes or Telex from my past, but those were passing fads compared to the floppy disk which has endured lo these many years.

I recall the Frisbee-sized 8 inch floppy disks in my assembly language class in college, and only a year later those seemed archaic next to the 5 1/4" disks used by PCs.

The 5 1/4" disks could store a whole 360KB, or 720KB if you paid for the double-sided disks. "Double sided" meant removing the disk from the drive and flipping it over so you could write to the backside.  At the time it cost extra to for double-sided, until I learned you could use a fingernail clipper to chip out a hole on the disk, making a single-sided disk writable on both sides. During CS classes at Oregon State I'd fill a whole floppy disk carrying case with class projects -- nearly 1 MB of programs on 10 disks!

True to their name those disks were floppy, both the casing and the disk inside, so it was a bit of a digression when the 3.5" high-density disks arrived on the scene and they harder and more compact. The benefits, however, of storing over a megabyte of data on a single disk overcame any disappointment I may have had.  I think I remember installing Microsoft Windows 3.1 from 13 floppy disks, oblivious to the pregnant pauses as I swapped from disk to disk.

Later I had the Bernoulli Box, the iOmega Zip drive, and other obscure storage devices, but they were passing fancies. Data stored on them was ephemeral, lost with each iteration of dead media, but the floppy drive reliably appeared in each new computer I bought. Today, even with the advent of USB flash drives, most desktop computers often come with a floppy drive. I take it for granted it will be there, like the cigarette lighter in a car, or the coin pocket on a pair of Levi blue jeans.

That assumption changed recently. I've been coaching a First Lego League team, and the kids didn't seem to understand when I said "Click on the floppy disk to save your program."  They looked at my blankly, and I found myself explaining the [Save] icon to the kids.
Me: "It's a floppy drive, like you're saving to a disk."
Kids: "What's a floppy drive?
Now, I've seen hundreds of software vendors, from Microsoft on down, use an image of the 3.5" floppy drive to signify saving your work.  The floppy disk drive has become an icon, right? Both literally and figuratively.  But these kids taught me that the icon is fading.  The upcoming generation of computer users doesn't even know what it means to have to save.  My son often reminds me that in google docs your work is always saved automatically.

I read this article where Apple has dropped the CD disk drive from their latest iMac.  The first iMac in 1998 was one of the first computers to forgo the floppy.  Rather than sympathy, they practically exude scorn for the fading technology:
"Over time, an optical disc will be as much of an historical curiosity as a floppy disk," said Michael Gartenberg, a tech-industry analyst with research firm Gartner Inc.

"These old technologies are holding us back," says Phil Schiller, a marketer at Apple. "They're anchors on where we want to go. We find the things that have outlived their useful purpose."
I appreciate the goal of these marketeers, striving for a better product, a new shiny thing that grabs your eye, but I can't help but feel like we're losing something.

Maybe you can tell I'm old by my hardware, but we still need a save point.  In this era of "always on" internet, instant entertainment, live streaming and toss-away digital images, we need something that anchors to a page, holds the moment for more than a moment.  Before personal computers, I remember reading my dad's paperback books and finding notations in the margin. This was both his way of making a save point, as well pointing it out to someone else.  It was a blog that was even more personal than most, shared only with the few people who read the book.

I mean, the whole point of all this saved data is to use computers to share it with people.  A spreadsheet, an address book, a photo, a video, a blog, they are all ways to leverage the digital might of the computer and pass information along to others.  Sometimes it takes an icon to remind us to save.  Recently I had one of those moments.

A couple weeks ago I was exploring the basement with my son. He had told me that he wanted to put together his own computer, and I was pulling out old hardware to see if anything was still useful.  He got into one box and found my old orange floppy disk carrying case, one with a lever that, when turned, could splay out the ten disks in a fan so you could read their labels.

"That's pretty cool," he said.  "I wish we still used floppies like this."

I looked at at him, admiring my old disk carrier in the same way I used to browse through my dad's bookshelf, and made that one of my save points.

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