Thursday, March 15, 2007

What's going to replace the floppy disk?

Just a few years ago, this was a hot question: What's going to replace the floppy disk? I hardly ever use floppies these days, and I know I'm not alone.

In the past there were many candidates to replace floppies. The most interesting were:
  • Small devices that could hold about 20 times as much data as a floppy.
  • Many special drives like the Bernoulli Zip drives that used special platters and held 100MB and up.

The conventional wisdom about these devices was that they were wonderfully useful but could not replace the floppy. They all required special hardware that you wouldn't find on every computer. (Zip drives, I think, came closest to being ubiquitous.) The other problem was price competition: Floppies cost $1 (more recently, more like 30 cents), a great price point for carrying a single file around. Who wants to buy a $20 disk to carry a single small file? And who wants to carry around a special purpose disk just in case you can use it on some computer systems?

Now look again, what happened? I think that the Internet, and USB flash drives (and even PDAs and music players and flash cards in cameras), are replacing the floppy. There are many ways to copy, store or backup a file on the internet, making it routinely unnecessary to use a floppy to carry a file. USB drives are incredibly convenient because of their size, even though they can't match the floppy's price point for a single file. The convenience of all these media is that they can be used almost everywhere without buying a special disk drive. If you pay $50 for a 4GB flash drive, your price per megabyte is lower than the floppy's. But the flash drive supports so many multiple instances of moving just a file or two, it soon catches up.

What interests me about the waning of the floppy is how quietly it has happened, after years of everyone watching to see who would knock the floppy off its perch.
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