Why the floppy disk just won’t die

From Ars Technica:

When Mark Necaise got down to his last four floppy disks at a rodeo in Mississippi in February, he started to worry.

Necaise travels to horse shows around the state, offering custom embroidery on jackets and vests: “All of the winners would get a jacket and we’d put the name of the farm or the name of the horse or whatever on it,” he says.

Five years ago, he paid $18,000 for a second-hand machine, manufactured in 2004 by the Japanese embroidery equipment specialist Tajima. The only way to transfer the designs from his computer to the machine was via floppy disk.

“We started with eight disks, but four of them stopped working, which made me very uneasy,” he says. “I tried reformatting them in order to get them to work properly, but it didn’t work. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to continue with the embroidery.”

Back when Necaise’s Tajima machine was made, floppy disks were still in mass production—and were particularly popular in Japan, where they were used for official government procedures until last year. Even though the last major manufacturer of floppy disks stopped making them in 2010, the machines that rely on them—from embroidery machines to plastic molding, medical equipment to aircraft—live on, relying on a dwindling supply of disks that will one day run out.

“I personally think that the floppy disk should die,” says Florian Cramer, a writer and filmmaker who, in 2009, shrank every Oscar-nominated film from that year into animated GIFs on two floppy disks, as a commentary on Hollywood’s digital piracy crackdown. “Objectively it’s a toxic medium. It’s basically plastic waste… It’s really something that should no longer exist.”

. . . .

Most of the companies still using floppy disks are small businesses or companies running on tight margins who either simply never got around to upgrading their equipment or found it too expensive to do so.

Davit Niazashvili, a maintenance manager at Geosky, a cargo airline based in Tbilisi, Georgia, still uses floppy disks to apply critical updates to two 36-year-old 747-200s, which were originally delivered to British Airways in 1987: “When an update is released, we need to download it to two 3.5-inch floppy disks. There are no computers with built-in floppy drives left, so we had to source an external one,” Niazashvili says. “Then we take the disks to the aircraft to update the flight management system. The operation takes about an hour.”

The updates contain essential data, such as changes to runways and navigational aids, and are released every 28 days according to a fixed global schedule, which is already set through 2029.

“Nowadays it’s very hard to obtain floppy disks. We actually get them from Amazon,” Niazashvili says. “They are very sensitive and prone to failing, so at best we can use each one around three times, then we have to throw it away. But we have to do it. It’s not a problem. As long as floppy disks are still available, we’re happy with it.”

Fewer than 20 Boeing 747-200s remain in service worldwide, and only in cargo or military configurations. The US Air Force operates six, two of them as Air Force One. It’s unclear whether they still use floppy disks, too, but the US military employed the even-older 8-inch floppy disks in its nuclear arsenal until 2019.

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

7 thoughts on “Why the floppy disk just won’t die”

  1. The media formats of computers are full of stories like this. The general term-of-art is “technical debt”, what you owe as systems drift out of date. If you don’t update them when it happens, you have do it eventually — pay now, or pay (usually more) later.

    First they came for the punched paper tape & Friden machine innards. Then they came for the CRAM cards… I wrote the following up in a fit of pique once, and the comment section remains amusing. https://rationaldelight.com/2015/10/the-hidden-personal-cost-of-your-computer-ecosystem/

  2. I’m waiting for the wails when someone finds and relies upon a huge cache of virgin 3.5″ floppy disks… hard-formatted for early-generation-Macintosh-only use. Yes, there’s a DOS program that can reformat the disks properly,† but it requires a floppy drive that exceeded ordinary specs.

    † If you want to scream at Apple (and its “walled garden”/”we want to be IBM from 1969” attitude) when the 747-200 you’re hitching a ride on goes down over the Atlantic due to a failed software update, be my guest.

    • A year or two ago I was in an Apple store replacing my iPad (the only piece of Apple gear I own, for specialized music score use), when I saw a great big poster advertising the latest release of one of their cellphones. The text (over smiling well-dressed hipsters) was “You look good with a [model whatever-it-was cellphone]”, which sentiment says it all about what drives their brand.

  3. When I ordered my new laptop, I ordered a USB floppy drive and a USB DVD burner. Both cost $20.
    My desktop has a combo floppy drive full size Flash card reader. That used to get use. The new USB stuff is just belt and suspender backup.

    You never know. 🙂

  4. I have about 60-75 of ye olden floppy disks that I still use whenever I’m looking for a particularly old story or pic. Still got the USB floppy drive from when I bought a computer with the then new XP. Still got that old computer, plus an old Win7 that I have to dig out in order to properly use the floppy drive. May have to buy a special burner some day to watch ye olden DVD movies.

    • I’ve got a working 8″ external floppy disk with an S100-to-USB dongleoid. (At least, it was working last spring when I helped a neighbor-professor retrieve 1970s-era real-property-transaction data covering a period for which the “official” government records had been destroyed in a fire.) That’s the easy part; control and data formatting, now that’s interesting.

      • I’ve seen those, and used them a couple times at my old (but not quite dinosaur) job, but never had one of my own. I’ve also seen but not used punch cards or paper tape.

        Now, of course, I do have a 5 1/4″ floppy drive, and some 5 1/4″ floppy disks, plus a number of 3.5″ disks and drives, and a ST225 MFM 20M HDD…

Comments are closed.