Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Floppy disks


There was an article in Wired a few days ago, about how the floppy disk was still with us, living on in various embedded systems as a way of delivering software updates to elderly 747's, computer based stitching machines, and various elderly medical instruments that have trickled down to less well funded hospitals in poorer countries.

And culturally it is with us as well as a save icon in a whole gamut of applications, despite computers not having floppy drives for 20 plus years.

Of course the 3.5" 1.44MB floppy was really the end of the line* - stored in a rigid plastic jacket it was a vast improvement on the single and double sided 5.25" and 8" floppies that had come before - these really did bend, and sometimes needed support rings adding to the centre hole to avoid them being mangled by hungry drives or people pulling them out or putting them in in an overly enthusiastic manner.

But the rigid 3.5" unit was an improvement - relatively robust, and in the days before dropbox, students used to have their work on their own floppies which they (hopefully) carried about in a clean rigid plastic box designed for the purpose.

Sometimes they just used a ziploc bag, and sometimes they just stuffed it in the bottom of a backpack. It always amazed me quite how tough these floppies were and how with the aid of some canned air to blow off the crud you could usually get them to read and recover data from them.

But the great thing about the IBM format 3.5" floppy it was a near universal standard for data interchange. Every computer had a floppy drive and the disks were cheap enough to be eminently affordable.

Sometime just after the Soviet Union came apart I had an amazing demonstration on the near universality of the 3.5" floppy disk and its data format.

Among other things I was running a file and data conversion/recovery service for a university, and I remember a researcher from the Ukraine turned up with some data on a set of Bulgarian made 3.5" disks that had been written on some non western machine.

My first thought was 'nah, it'll have some weird sector map', but it didn't. The disks just read in a standard pc.

And now we're running out of floppies. 

The last production line closed years ago and those people who squirrelled away stock are running out. For the moment you can buy sealed packs of unused disks at an outrageous price, and there are people on eBay who will sell you recycled disks at a slightly less outrageous prices, but it's clear that we are running out of floppy disks.

And while there technical solutions to work round the problem, such as the GoTek floppy emulator, they are of course not certified for use with some devices, and when your device is a Boeing 747, you probably do want to make sure that your emulator has been through the same testing regime as the original floppy drive ...

* actually it wasn't - there was 2.88Mb double density format which never achieved popularity, and which was, from memory, principally found in some 3Com routers and DEC alpha systems ...

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