Floppies: Technology of the past?

Sunday, August 23, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

There's a belief in computerland, especially strong among the Macintosh faithful, that Apple Computer Inc. blazes the path to the future.

Microsoft follows, of course, building toll roads. But that's another column.

Apple's hot-selling new personal computer, the iMac, may be a glance at the future. It is simple, compact and looks really cool. But there's something it doesn't have a floppy drive.

I have very mixed feelings about floppy disks. To me they're the computer equivalent of a dime-store notepad.

They're cheap and handy; I've carried many a text document around in my shirt pocket on a floppy drive. But they're also notoriously prone to failure I've seen my wife reduced to tears because some important document was lost to a defective floppy.

And they're sooooo small. Recently, someone asked me to save a couple Microsoft Access files from his laptop. One was 10 megabytes, the other 18 megabytes. Compressing and trying to squeeze them on floppies was like trying to pack for a week-long vacation using a couple of those little clutch purses women take to the opera.

Text documents are about all a floppy can hold anymore. You might be able to squeeze a couple digital photos on a floppy, but don't try audio or video.

Software? Forget it. Even most simple shareware programs have outgrown the 1.44-megabyte floppy disk. Few computer users are willing to learn how to cut up large files to fit them on several floppies.

Which explains why every computer nowadays comes with a CD-ROM drive. CDs are cheaper and easier to create, faster and more reliable, and hold hundreds of times more stuff than a floppy.

That's fine for putting software into the computer, but what about getting stuff out?

Several companies with names like Syquest, Iomega, Imation and Sony have created alternatives to the floppy disk. But only one product really stands out.

Iomega became a major player in the computer business a few years ago by inventing the floppy-like Zip disk, which holds 100 megabytes, about 70 times the storage space of a floppy.

The Zip drive has become the most popular alternative to the floppy. Iomega has sold more than 15 million Zip drives, and they're available as an option on all new PCs.

Iomega has also licensed its technology to other companies such as Epson, which also markets Zip drives.

Storefront printers such as Kinko's and Sir Speedy accept files on Zip drives, and most offices have at least one PC around with a Zip drive.

Then there's the issue of backups.

Everyone tells you to occasionally back up your computer's hard drive, but do you ever do it? Of course not, because how do you back up a 2-gigabyte drive on floppies? Again, Zips are perfect for backups (although you'll invest more than $100 in disks).

Zips aren't cheap. While the drives are about the same price as a floppy drive (about $100 for an internal unit), the disks retail for about $15 each (less if you buy in bulk). Compare that to less than $1 for a floppy.

Floppies are so common that most homes and offices have a box of old floppies to be used like scrap paper. Even in my office, you won't see any spare Zips lying around.

The only serious competitor to the Zip drive is the Imation SuperDisk, also sold generically as the LS-120. SuperDisk drives and disks cost about the same as Zip drives and disks, but hold 120 megabytes, 20 percent more than the Zip. The disks are smaller, about the size of a floppy.

The advantage of the SuperDisk drive is it also reads standard 3.5-inch floppies. Since billions of floppies are still sold worldwide every year, it's unlikely the floppy will disappear anytime soon.

SuperDisk has lagged far behind Zip drives in sales, due in part to clever, aggressive marketing by Iomega. But SuperDisk just might be the tortoise to Iomega's hare.

SuperDisk has a good chance of becoming the removeable media of choice for laptops. Built-in SuperDisks are available on a wide variety of high-end laptops; the drives double as floppy drives.

SuperDisk also is selling a Universal Serial Bus version of its drive, just perfect for the iMac. And many PCs can be configured with a SuperDisk as the A drive, making it easy to boot from a SuperDisk or that standard Win95 floppy.

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.