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Icons of Progress
 

The Floppy Disk

 

The floppy disk was once ubiquitous. More than five billion were sold per year worldwide at its peak in the mid-1990s. Now, the little plastic packages are a fast-fading memory. It has been widely reported that Sony, the last major floppy disk maker, will stop producing them in major markets this year. Today, the disks can be found mainly in the dusty bottoms of desk drawers and filing cabinets. Yet the floppy disk will go down as a singular advance in computing history. Floppies helped enable the PC revolution and the emergence of an independent software industry that now includes more than 10,000 companies. “It turned out to be one of the most influential product introductions ever in the industry,” says Jim Porter, a long-time disk drive analyst.

The floppy got its start at IBM’s data storage skunkworks in San Jose, California. In 1967, a small team of engineers under the leadership of David L. Noble started working on developing a reliable and inexpensive system for loading instructions and installing software updates into mainframe computers. The big machines were already equipped with hard disk drives, also invented by IBM engineers, but people used paper punched cards for data entry and software programming. The team considered using magnetic tape first, but then, in a project code-named “Minnow,” they switched to using a flexible Mylar disk coated with magnetic material that could be inserted through a slot into a disk drive mechanism and spun on a spindle. “I had no idea how important it would become and how widespread,” recalls Warren L. Dalziel, the lead inventor of the floppy disk drive.

The first floppies were 8-inch disks that were bare, but they got dirty easily, so the team packaged them in slim but durable envelopes equipped with an innovative dust-wiping element, making it possible to handle and store them easily. IBM began selling floppy disk drives in 1971, and received U.S. patents for the drive and floppy disk in 1972. In the early days, a single disk had the capacity of 3,000 punched cards, and IBM adapted its punched card data entry machines so their operators could easily shift from loading data on paper cards to putting it on the disks. In this way, the company sent into retirement the punched card, which had been a key to its success since its founding in 1911. It’s an example of IBM’s willingness over the years to obsolete its own technology when it discovers something that does the job better.

Fast-forward to the late 1970s. The first microcomputers used toggle switches and paper punched tape, a variant on the paper punched card, to install and store data. Later, people loaded software programs into their PCs using cassette tape recorders. The big storage breakthrough came in 1977 when Apple introduced the Apple II, its first mass-produced computer. It came with two 5-¼ inch floppy drives. George Sollman, a former executive of Shugart Associates, which had been started by IBMers, recalls showing Shugart’s new floppy drive to a meeting of the Homebrew Computing Club, of which Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were members. A few days later he was told there was a guy in the lobby of his office building who wanted to see him. “So I went out to the lobby and this guy was sitting there with holes in both knees. …. He had the most dark, intense eyes. He said, ‘I’ve got this thing we can build.’” It was Jobs. Shugart became Apple’s supplier of floppy disk drives.

Thanks to the advent of floppies, ordinary people were able to load operating systems and other software programs into their personal computers. The first IBM PC, sold in 1981, was available with two floppy drives. Users typically loaded an application in one drive and stored data on a diskette in the other.

This was a big advance in user-friendliness. But perhaps the greatest impact of the floppy wasn’t on individuals, but on the nature and structure of the IT industry. Up until the late 1970s, most software applications for tasks such as word processing and accounting were written by the personal computer owners themselves. But thanks to the floppy, companies could write programs, put them on the disks, and sell them through the mail or in stores. “It made it possible to have a software industry,” says Lee Felsenstein, a pioneer of the PC industry who designed the Osborne 1, the first mass-produced portable computer. Before networks became widely available for PCs, people used floppies to share programs and data with each other—calling it the “sneakernet.”

IBM made floppy disk drives for many years, and it continued to innovate. In 1984, it introduced the high density floppy disk for the PC, which could store 1.2 megabytes of data—capacious at the time. It produced the 3-½ inch floppy drives that became the mainstay of computing in the 1990s. Then, as the profit margins for floppy drives shrank, IBM got out of the business. But not before having again changed the business of technology.