Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 09:53 UK

The mystery of the mega-selling floppy disk

By Jason Palmer
BBC News

Sony has said it will stop making floppy disks, after nearly three decades of manufacture. Yet millions of them are still being bought every year. But who is actually buying them?

Stack of floppy disks (Eyewire)
That's about one snap on a brand new digital camera

The floppy disk is the very symbol of storage; when you want to save a file, you go looking for that little icon that looks like a floppy.

Every year another computer manufacturer stops putting floppy drives in its machines, or a retailer stops selling the disks. Each time the cry goes up that the death knell has been sounded for the floppy disk.

However, Verbatim, a UK manufacturer which makes more than a quarter of the floppies sold in the UK, says it sells hundreds of thousands of them a month. It sells millions more in Europe.

"We've been discussing the death of the floppy for 14 years, ever since CD technology first started coming on strong," says Verbatim spokesman Kevin Jefcoate.

Yet what was Sony's best-selling peripheral for its computers in recent years? The 3.5-inch floppy disk drive that connects via a USB cable.

Somewhere out there, the floppy disk is alive and well. But where?

Disk-credited

The truth is the 3½-inch, 1.44 megabyte floppy - the disk that made it big - has always defied logic. It's not floppy for a start. The term was a hangover from its precursor, the 5¼-inch floppy, which had a definite lack of rigidity about it. However, its smaller successor held even more data.

But then along came the CD-ROM, and then the USB flash drive shamed them both; the most voluminous USB stick - which could pass for a keyring - can now hold nearly 90,000 floppies' worth of data.

Old habits die hard, I guess... If you you don't do much in the way of photography or music, then why would you change?
John Delaney
Research director, IDC

One might be tempted to think that, like the vinyl enthusiasts who insist music sounds "warmer" on a record, the floppy has its own fan club. But unlike the case of vinyl, the digital format of a floppy is no different than that found on your hard drive or USB stick.

Given their limited size and speed of data transfer, along with their increasing obsolescence, it's harder to find a floppy fan club than it is to find a laptop with a floppy drive built in.

But what about all the second-hand computers that are donated to the developing world? Could they be even partly responsible for the thousands of disks still sold?

Anja Ffrench of Computer Aid International - the largest charity working to distribute recycled IT to Africa and South America - says that they only deal in computers from 2002 and later, meaning that they'll have the USB connection that obviates the need for floppies.

There are a few instances for which floppies remain the norm, like the specialist, high-value technology that may rely on floppy drives for data.

Saving grace

The vast desks that control the light shows and sounds settings in theatres or music venues have until recently come with floppy drives as standard; the English National Opera is just one example of an organisation that uses them.

Mixing desk, Top of the Pops
One place you might find at least a few floppy disks

A volunteer at the National Museum of Computing says that many scientific instruments - so-called dataloggers, oscilloscopes and the like - record their data onto floppies.

This kind of expensive equipment is made to last, to be bought infrequently - and these gadgets may call for at least a few floppies in their lifetimes.

But these relatively niche uses couldn't possibly account for the number of floppies - something like a million a month - that are being consumed in the UK alone.

The answer may simply be that there are a great many old computers that read only floppies, and a great many computer users that have no need for the storage media that have supplanted them in other quarters.

Rather than there being one industry propped up on the values of a floppy, or a horde of enthusiasts buying up the world's supply, the humble floppy may simply be as much as many computer users need.

"Old habits die hard, I guess," said John Delaney, research director for IT analysts IDC.

"If you've been using PCs for a long time and you don't do much in the way of photography or music with them, then why would you change?

"There are people who ride technology for as long as it can be ridden without falling over."


Below is a selection of your comments.

I would just like to point out that the reason it is called a floppy disk is because the actual disk which is inside the plastic cover is floppy, as opposed to a hard disk where the disk is actually hard and rigid. Nothing to do with the 5 1/4 floppy.
Jamie Chapman, Pentre, South-Wales

I still be using Floppy Disks and use them to store sound effects for Video Editing. As the effects are short files they are ideal media for this and are reliable. USB Keys could be used but usually are of to big of a storage and are not as easy to be stored. I still hope that they will be made till someone comes up with a system that works as well as Floppys and do not use more space. Using CDs or DVDs are not really a replacement as if one goes wrong I loose the lot as for a Floppy I just loose one sound effect but usually have two, so I have at least one back up and would make straight away a new backup.
Bernhard Koster, Poole / Dorset

I'm totally shocked that floppies are still used in such numbers. truly amazing
Navin, Guyana

I work in IT and haven't used a floppy for years and instead, I have USB sticks lying in piles like the floppies used to. For little under £3.00 you can buy a 512MB and just about a 1GB USB stick which can be used to boot devices, for storage, and to even give away! With the days of 24 floppy disks to install Microsoft Office 95, and getting to disk 23 an hour later and it's corrupted, I won't be looking back! Some will argue long live floppy disks, but in my opinion, goodbye forever!
Lee Osborne, Colchester, Essex, UK

One factor by which the numbers used may be exaggerated is the way floppies are sold. I needed one recently but the smallest pack I could find contained twenty. I now have nineteen spare and probably useless disks but they will each have registeered as sales in the statistics. If all purchases are like mine the actual usage may be a lot smaller than the statistics suggest.
Edward Alport, Colchester

There are still plenty of embedded machines in the production industry that use floppies for backup and install purposes. Some of the machines that control production machines are so old they don't require windows, only DOS, and the floppy is still king here.
Seyhan A, Swansea

I have an old music keyboard which uses floppies. Luckily I was able to get a box of 200 new disks from my company when they ditched them - enough to keep me going...
Lyndon, Birmingham

I work for an IT company and we still use floppy disks to take "boot" and "root" backups of our Unix systems as these are designed to fit perfectly on a 1.44MB disk.
Chris, London

Still use 3.5 as back up it makes life much easier if you want to send copies through the post without giving away too many secrets.
Dave Spittal, Nottingham

I Still have one computer running DOS, and those old DOS programs were designed to use floppies. Why keep a DOS machine? It's more reliable than any modern OS. That DOS machine will run for years and years without ever crashing and losing data.
Flash Light, NYC, USA

Ideal for small documents, without too much fiddling about. With USB sticks one should dismount and they often get lost.
Ian, Peterborough



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