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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    As programs and data take up more space, days of the humble floppy disk are numbered

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #309  September 19, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Let's take a moment to think of the floppy disk and drive in your computer. It is perhaps the part of the machine that's had the least change over the past decade or so, but in the early days of personal computing, it wasn't even there.

    The primeval Altair, which emerged from the swamp 20 years ago, is often thought of as the first PC, and is best remembered as the thing that motivated Bill Gates to quit Harvard to start a software company. That software was stored as holes in easily-torn paper tape, and was soon replaced by more durable audio cassette tapes, used by popular machines like the Commodore VIC-20.

    Apple founder Steve Wozniak found fame and fortune in the late '70s by getting a floppy disk to run on the original Apple II. That made it easy to load software quickly and store data conveniently. Add a popular business application like the original VisiCalc program, and there was the takeoff point for a multibillion-dollar industry.

    More convenient 3-1/2" floppies started replacing the larger, old-style 5-1/4" disks when they were provided as standard issue on the 1984 Apple Macintosh. By 1988, both Macs and IBM PS/2s used these disks, enhanced to hold about a meg-and-a-half of programs or data.

    At the time, it seemed like you could fit a lot on one of those disks, which had about the same capacity as eight of the 160-kb floppies that were an added-price extra with the original 1981 IBM PC. But now, years after they became commonplace, users can get a severe case of tennis elbow loading software shipped on so-called high-density diskettes. Get a copy of IBM's WARP on floppies, and you'll find 21 disks to install the operating system. And inside the box are another 14 floppies for the bonus-pack software.

    That's one of the big reasons for the upsurge in popularity of CD-ROM players: it's a lot easier to put one gold disc in the drive, click on the Setup icon, and go get a cup of coffee. And floppies can be damaged: just ask one of the thousands of people who bought Windows 95 on floppies only to discover the package was unusable, because of a flawed Disk 2.

    CD-ROMs are definitely more convenient, but they too have a drawback--you can't use them to store data or back up your hard drives. A couple of years ago, Tandy/Radio Shack announced a product called Thor that it claimed would soon bring affordable, writable CD-ROM drives to the mass market. But after a flurry of hype, the project seems to have disappeared.

    Drives that allow users to create their own CDs still haven't dipped below the $1,000 mark, and remain too expensive for most users. Besides, what you've written on a CD is permanent, unlike the data on floppies, which can be erased and rewritten.

    There have been a number of technologies offering removable mass-storage on high-capacity disks of one sort or another. Syquest has a series of cartridge drives, particularly popular among Mac users and desktop publishers who have to transport multi-meg files for high-resolution printing at a service bureau. But high cost, among other problems, has kept this from becoming a true mass standard. Recently, I tested another alternative--the HardPac, a magneto-optical drive. The small, removable 250-meg cartridges, in a drive the size of a small paperback, have a lot to recommend them, but not at $1,700 for the drive and $90 per disk.

    But suddenly, after more than a decade of relying on increasingly inadequate floppy disks, the situation has started to change. Last fall, Iomega, a company with more than a decade of experience marketing removable Bernoulli drives, introduced the ZIP drive to the PC and Mac markets, and has been unable to meet the demand for the product since. The ZIP, which lists for US$199, is a tiny, external drive that takes disks a little larger than the common 3-1/2" floppies. But instead of holding a meg or so, ZIP disks hold 100 megs. Even at their list price of US$20 each, they offer good value and performance. And the drives plug into a Mac's SCSI port, or even into a PC's printer port, making them portable enough to go anywhere.

    Rival Syquest has bounced back with a competitive product that packs about 130 megs onto a disk (unfortunately not compatible with the ZIP disk). And lurking in the near future is Iomega's JAZ, a US$599 drive promising a massive one gigabyte (1,000 megs) on a single, relatively affordable removable disk.

    None of these products is anywhere near as universal as the lowly floppy diskette, but it seems probable that one or another of them will be adopted by the market as the new standard way for storing data, shipping software and backing up hard drives. And given their low cost and easy installation, you don't have to wait for your next computer to get one


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan