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Sony move confirms floppy disk's death, but its icon lives on

We're seeing yet another round of "the floppy disk is dead" stories this week after Sony announced that it would stop selling the things in Japan next March.

floppy_disk_comparison.jpg

Sony's move was a formality, as it had already ceased sales of 3.5-inch floppy disks in most other markets. Years earlier, most computer manufacturers had followed Apple's lead in ejecting the floppy; that company looked gutsy in shipping the first iMac without a floppy drive in 1998, but by the time Dell stopped including floppy drives as standard desktop equipment in 2003 it was an obvious choice. The fragile, relatively bulky floppy held too little data to survive next to USB flash drives or flash-memory cards -- even if the electronics industry needed more than a decade to settle on a standard format for the latter.

(As a curmudgeonly aside: 3.5-inch disks, what some once called diskettes, don't flop at all compared to their 5.25-inch predecessors or even older 8-inch behemoths like the one you see underneath a vintage "floppy" in the above photo.)

But many of today's worthy reminiscences -- see, for example, those by ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Wired's Charlie Sorrel and PCMag.com's Lance Ulanoff -- leave one issue unaddressed.

floppy_disk_save_icons.png

That would be the floppy's most lasting inheritance, the "save" and "save as" disk icons you see in the toolbars and menus of many applications. Even when software developers rewrite interfaces from scratch, they keep going back to the same old floppy-disk icon -- see, for example, the icons featured in Microsoft Word 2007, as enlarged above.

What do we do about that? Should we agree on a replacement graphic of some sort? Or should we regard these icons as the visual equivalent of such spoken anachronisms as saying we'll "dial" a phone number?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 27, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Computers , Digital culture  
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Comments

The file open graphic is a file folder. What relation does that have to the string of bits on the storage device? It's a useful metaphor. Read "In the Beginning Was The command Line" for more on metaphors in the computer industry, metaphor shear, and other interesting observations.

Years ago I saw a box of 8" floppies at a radio Shack and thought "I should grab those for the box 'o' dead tech at home". By the time I got back with enough cash, they were gone.

Posted by: wiredog | April 27, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Wow.

Back in 1981-82, I took a half year "data processing" class in high school; the computer we had in the classroom at that time was an NCR 7500 that used those eight inch floppies. I remember they had to be "mounted" before they could be accessed.

Posted by: SportzNut21 | April 27, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

And the Word email icon is a snail-mail envelope. I'm thinking we can live with the familiar 3-1/2 inch diskette File Save icon. :)

Posted by: Arlington4 | April 27, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

It's the inside that's "floppy disk" part, and flimsy, disk of magnetic film. The non-floppy part is the non-disk-shaped case protecting it.

Posted by: Wallenstein | April 27, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

My dissertation data (1980) was on two boxes of punch cards, backed up on magnetic tape drives.

Posted by: umprof | April 27, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

My 1973 computing class at AU was all punch cards....Lord help ya if you stumbled up the steps and dumped them all. I remember submitting my program and running in at 11 pm to see the dreaded "failure" notice on my stack....

Posted by: tbva | April 27, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Haha, is that an AOL 1.x disk in the picture? Did you use all of your free hours yet?

Posted by: ozpunk | April 27, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

So then how exactly does one "archive" data and be assured that your can read it back in the future? The 8" / 51/4" / 31/2" floppies are gone. The streaming tape drives are gone. The CD is replaced by the DVD and should last many years in a cool, dry location but for howmany years will our computers have a device that can read the? My computer with WinXP was loaded from an "upgrade CD" that required me to insert the first floppy from my Windows distribution. I guess that when I move forward in hardware I will extract the floppy drive with cable from my old computer and temporarily move it to the new computer to load in WinXP. Live for the moment!

Posted by: Coach_1 | April 27, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Ha! I not only remember punch cards, but those tickertape looking punched tapes. Also - put skip list - is still in my brain's hard drive. I also listened to Jimi Hendrix on 8 track. So I guess I'm destined for the Smithsonian.

Posted by: jqw3827 | April 27, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Granted it has been a few years since I've used Windows, but I was always struck by the hourglass icon the programs used to show they were working. Hourglasses went out, what, 200 years ago (unless you play Boggle)? Now that is an anachronistic icon. At least floppy disks were state of the art at some point in the last 20 years.

(The code for my undergraduate thesis computer model was stored on rolls of punctured paper tape).

Posted by: sparkysgal | April 27, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

you still need to use a floppy when you install RAID for windows XP installations, if you build your own rigs.

Posted by: vitoon | April 27, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I was never a big fan of the 3.5 1.44MB "floppies". I much prefered the 5.25, 1.2MB floppies. No one seemed to realize that if you have a hundred or two floppies, the 5.25's are more compact.

When I finally gave up the 5.25 floppies I made the mistake of getting rid of some holders, which just happened to be perfect for storing CDs.

I do have an 8" floppy. That is a whopper.

I always make sure that at least 1 computer in the office has a 3.5" floppy drive, usually a server.

Posted by: cyberfool | April 27, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of the "Good old Days".
When I sent exam sheets of each of my 300+ student Biology classes to our Computer Center for scoring. . . they didn't respond for more than a week. They said that the run would go part way and then stop and erase results.
Mystery finally solved when they learned that I told a student who forgot his student number to just enter "99999999" . . . which was the code for stopping and erasing a run.

Posted by: lufrank1 | April 27, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

@ozpunk: Close guess--the AOL floppy in the photo is of the 2.01 Mac release.

@Coach_1: As long as you keep up-to-date backups, you should be fine. You'll just see your backups move from one storage technology to another every decade or so, maybe a little more often.

Two other tidbits:

* As one piece of evidence of the floppy's obsolescence, I transferred that photo from my phone to my computer using Evernote's software and service and so didn't use any removable storage at all.

* My friend Rocky Agrawal reminded me of a good blog post he wrote a couple of years ago, in which he noted other forms of technically obsolete speech ("rewind," "album," "turn off the TV," etc.) and recommended--oh, yes!--a rotary-dialer app for the iPhone.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | April 27, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I remember standing on the roof of my balcony launching floppies in disgust after the drives at the school's labs kept eating them. I lost both copies of a class project after both copies of a class project died simultaneously. Good riddance. Knock on wood but I haven't had a flash device fail yet.

Posted by: slar | April 27, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Slar wrote:

" Knock on wood but I haven't had a flash device fail yet."

I've had two fail. ;-(

Didn't lose any valuable data as I had it BACKED UP!

[I punched my first 80 column IBM card at MIT about 1957 when I was about 8 yo (my aunt and uncle worked there.) My friend Dave Lebling (yes, that one) and I talked about designing computers in Jr Hi, just never did. He went to MIT and wrote Zork, I went to New Mexico and wrote about Comanches.)

Posted by: tkavanag | April 27, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Floppy Drives? Tapes? What newcomers!! I cut my eyeteeth, so to speak, on drum memory, mercury delay line storage, and a machine that used almost 7000 vacuum tubes of one sort or another. Transistors were really new stuff then. BTW, I still have a mouse pad from Wang.

Posted by: Geezer4 | April 27, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

"graphic is a file folder", "snail-mail envelope"

Those things are still in everyday use.

Posted by: buckdharma | April 27, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Went through a lot of rubber bands trying to keep stacks of 80 char punch cards in order for the IBM 360/40. Woe to those in FORTRAN class who started punching without a flow chart. My Chinese professor would threaten "you no do frow chaht, you frunk!"

Posted by: GaryJean | April 27, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Having learnt to programme as a child on GE Timeshare BASIC and, at thirty-eight, only old enough to remember media from punch-cards to paper tape, I'm amused that nobody has delved into the discussion, regardless of physical size, of SS/SD vs SS/HD vd DS/SD vs DS/DD and so forth. Since debates of 1.88, 1.76, and 1.44 MB (?) formats of competing 3.5" diskettes, differing by operating system, used to occupy us on dial-up BBS's, does nobody care to call out to those who found, and find, the mainstream folks of yesteryear more anachronistic than they (we, I'll grant...) now appear?

Posted by: jmundt | April 27, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

My Commodore-64 used a cassette tape drive! And I ran a BBS on it - 300 baud modem. Those were the days! A meg of storage was a happening BBS.

Posted by: DJMonet | April 27, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Rob, just a minor point. The data storage area of a 3.5" floppy was "floppy" even though it is encased in a hard shell, so the name is appropriate...

Posted by: jerkhoff | April 27, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Punch cards, tape drives, mecury tubes - hah! How many of you youngsters ever had your hands around a pack of Hollerith cards - the ones that used a knitting needle to perform a query?

Posted by: j3hess | April 27, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Microsoft Office 98, 2001, X and 2004 for Mac used a Zip disk rather than a "floppy" diskette as its "save" icon, in large part because the iMac ditched the floppy

But since the Zip disk is now gone and forgotten, Office 2008 for Mac has resumed using a floppy as the icon.

Posted by: LStarr3 | April 28, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

I still have Mac OS 8 installer on the two floppy disks it came on around here somewhere, but no computer that can load them.

But, the installation I still recall with terror was Microsoft Word 6.0, which required about a dozen floppy disks. Having just one fail to read right would abort the entire effort to install.

Posted by: query0 | April 28, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

I still have Mac OS 8 installer on the two floppy disks it came on around here somewhere, but no computer that can load them.

But, the installation I still recall with terror was Microsoft Word 6.0, which required about a dozen floppy disks. Having just one fail to read right would abort the entire effort to install.

Posted by: query0 | April 28, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

you can install RAID drivers from flash drive now I believe

Posted by: BMACattack | April 28, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

A lot of Computer Numerical Controlled machine tools use 3.5" floppys for data transfers.
This type of equipment can't be replaced or upgraded as easily as a PC.

Posted by: pa4445 | April 28, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

I remember in 1983ish, PCWorld magazine had a free copy of Microsoft Word (1.0, I believe) on a floppy that was glued in the seam of their magazine. You tore the floppy out at the perforated seam. It was just the floppy part. I don't quite remember, but I think I opened a floppy 5.25 shell, pulled out it's floppy and inserted the MS Word floppy, put it in the computer and loaded it up!

Posted by: Alexandria-va1 | April 28, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

BMACattack

For windows XP, the bios must recognize the flash drive as A: That means the motherboard must be able to recognize the file system on the flash drive ahead of time.

For windows Vista and 7, this is a non-issue, but for XP, it's a big deal.

Posted by: vitoon | April 29, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse

So does that mean that the hundreds of old 3.5" diskettes I have around here will someday be collector's items?

I have a copy of Windows 3.0 on 5.25" floppies in my archive. Wish I still had the copy of Windows 1.0 that came with the IBM PS/2 I bought for grad school.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | April 29, 2010 2:16 AM | Report abuse

54Stratocaster,

Save your floppies. They work well for leveling furniture, although they are too thick for precision shimming.

Posted by: Geezer4 | April 29, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

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