Floppy Disks

Though floppy disks might seem obsolete today, some still rely on them today for different purposes. Hobbyists use them to preserve old games and software while embroidery companies and airlines still employ them.  British Airways even continued using floppies as recently as 2020 in some Boeing 747s!

What Are Floppy Disks?

Floppy disks were the primary data storage medium from the 1970s through 1990s. Also referred to as diskettes, these circular devices contained one flat plastic disc with approximately 1.44 megabytes of storage capacity which could be read and interpreted into words, pictures, or audio data when placed inside a floppy disk drive (FDD).

Early versions of floppy disks measured 8 inches in size and could store only 80kilobytes of information. Over time they became smaller and more reliable, particularly the popular 3.5 inch disks that are currently on sale.

The earlier versions of the disk were not rigid, they were easy to bend, hence the term floppy.  The description is still associated with the current 3.5 inch version, even though this size has always used a rigid outer layer.

Floppy disks differ from rigid media like CD or DVD in that they’re enclosed in a sturdy plastic case for easier transport and protection from scratches or damage, making it easier for physically transporting between computers.

Floppy disks offer many other advantages over rigid drives besides portability, including non-volatility (meaning data won’t be lost even when power is removed) and compatibility across most computers, making file transfers between systems simple.

There are three major types of floppy disks: 8 inch, 5.25 inch and the 3.5 inch versions. The 8-inch was created in 1971 while 5 1/4-inch versions became widely popular after their introduction in 1976. Sony produced these latter ones which could store up to 800 kilobytes when properly formatted.

Before using it to store files, a floppy disk must first be formatted. This process typically takes a few minutes and must be performed carefully or the existing data may be lost. Common file systems used include VFAT (Floppy Formatted Automatically), FAT32 and DOS FAT32, usually used in Windows while VFAT is the standard format for other operating systems.

History Of Floppy Disks

Floppy disks were an increasingly popular data storage medium during the late 90s and earlier 2000s, providing an easy and efficient means of installing software programs on computers without CD-ROM drives or USB ports. Floppy disks also served as backup for critical files and data, providing vital protection prior to modern CD-ROM technology taking hold. Today they can only be found in antique computer systems or legacy industrial equipment.

Alan Shugart of IBM first introduced floppy disk technology in 1971 while working on Memorex 650, the world’s first read/write FDD. Specifically, he created an 8-inch diskette with 80kilobyte capacity, and later developed 5.25 inch diskette (in 1976).  The most popular size and sales during 1990s/2000s were 3.5″.

Different sizes of floppy disks are mechanically incompatible and only fit one type of drive mechanism. Early microcomputers designed for engineering, business, and word processing typically utilized one or more 8-inch floppy drives and ran the CP/M operating system specifically designed for them.

In the late 1980s, 3 1/2-inch floppy disks gradually replaced 5 1/4-inch disks due to their increased storage capacity, smaller physical case size, and rigid design that protected against damage. Computer manufacturers typically provided drives capable of handling both sizes during this transitional period.

By the mid 2000s however, sales of floppy disks had started to fall dramatically as consumers turned away from them in favour of higher capacity alternatives like recordable CD/DVDs and solid state flash drives. Sony, then one of the major floppy disk manufacturers at that time, officially stopped production of 3.5 inch floppies altogether in March 2011 and only a handful of companies currently produce them today.

While floppy disks were highly effective and convenient data storage devices, they weren’t free from risk. A virus could potentially infiltrate computers via these floppy drives and corrupt its contents, potentially leading to unexpected behaviors or failing completely.

Floppy disks were plagued with several drawbacks, such as their high cost, limited capacity and slow data transfer speeds.  Due to these issues and advances in storage technologies like Hard Disk Drives (HDDs), their popularity and usage gradually declined over time.  Nonetheless, they left an indelible mark on computing history.

Floppy Disk Uses Today

Floppy disks were once the go-to storage medium for early desktop computers, providing backup for files as well as the transfer of files between computers, laptops and other devices.  A typical 3 1/2 inch floppy can hold up to 2 MB of information.  They come in double density, high density and extra high density formats for easier use.

One of the primary areas where floppy disks continue to find relevance is in legacy systems and retro computing. Many organizations and individuals still rely on older computer systems that require floppy disks for booting, installing software, or accessing vital data. Retro computing enthusiasts also use floppy disks to preserve and experience software from the early computing era. 

Certain industrial control systems, particularly those used in manufacturing and automation, still rely on floppy disks for programming and data transfer. These systems often operate in isolated environments, where upgrading to newer technologies may not be feasible due to compatibility issues or cost constraints. Some of these machines can operate for decades, but are stuck with their built in technology.  Consequently, floppy disks serve as a reliable and cost-effective means of data exchange in such scenarios. 

Believe it or not, floppy disks can come to the rescue when it comes to data recovery. For individuals or businesses that have important data stored on old floppy disks, specialized data recovery services can help retrieve the information. This can be particularly useful when dealing with legacy documents, archives, or even sentimental files that were stored on floppy disks.

Floppy Disk Technology

Floppy disks were an integral component of early computers, used both for backing up data and installing software programs. As one floppy disk could hold only up to 1.44 MB of information, many programs required multiple disks to complete installation. By the late 2000s however, CD-RW drives and USB jump drives had begun gradually replacing floppy disks as backup media and installation solutions.

Floppy disks contain four primary components; magnetic media, actuator arm and two read/write heads. The magnetic media consists of flexible, conductive oxide-coated diskette sealed within a circular envelope with apertures for drive spindle and head contact.  Two heads read and write data onto a diskette surface by scanning rows of holes or tracks across its surface using binary coded holes or tracks.  These holes then store your data encoded within them.

As the floppy disk rotates, an actuator arm moves the reading/writing head along its track. Additionally, this head can also be positioned to scan all surfaces of the diskette in search of data.  This process is known as blind writing. To protect its media from dust or other environmental threats when removed from its drive, there is also a shutter that closes automatically upon being pulled out.

Early in the 1990s, higher-density floppy disk formats were introduced that could store up to 1.68MB on one standard 3.25-inch HD disk. Unfortunately, these higher capacity disks were mechanically incompatible with original drives making them less appealing to consumers.

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