Relic Of A Bygone Era: Sony to Cease Producing Floppy Drives

Sony has announced it will cease producing 1.44" drives in March, 2011. Demand for 3.5" drives and disks is larger than you might think—some 12 million disks sold in 2009—but it's time to pull the plug on the ancient standard. Once the workhorse of the computer industry, the floppy disk evolved significantly through the 70s and 80s. When CD-ROM drives and multimedia capabilities arrived in the early 90s, however, pundits began busily predicting the imminent demise of the 3.5" standard while manufacturers poured millions into disk-based product R&D. Given the ubiquitous nature of 3.5" drives, any company that could develop and successfully market the next generation of portable disks was guaranteed a massive revenue stream.

From 8" to 5.25" down to 3.5." There were also 5.25" drives only half as thick as the IBM drive shown here.

As for the 3.5" disk drive, it told both the pundits and the techies to get bent and set about surviving for another twenty years. The humble standard has proven to be a flat, rectangular, and tiny Jason Voorhees. Competing technologies included Floptical drives, Zip disks, LS-120, the Sony HiFD, and the UHD144. In every case, these devices offered vastly more storage capacity and far better performance. They all failed. Thumb drives and CD-ROMs took ten and nearly twenty years respectfully to push the floppy disk down the shaft. Microsoft probably could've helped this along a bit by developing an installer for Windows XP that allowed you to load storage controller drivers off something other than a 3.5" disk, but even in the early 2000s there were motherboard manuals that preferred BIOS updates via floppy over bootable CDs.

Having already defied the laws of physics and economics, we can only assume that the floppy disk has finally gotten bored and gave Sony permission to stop manufacturing it.

There is one serious point we want to touch on. Floppy disks may be thoroughly decrepit, but there's undoubtedly an enormous amount of archived data tucked away and forgotten in corporate storerooms, basements, attics, and libraries. Once Sony stops manufacturing floppy drives it will eventually become all but impossible to locate functional drives that are even potentially capable of reading the old disks. If that scenario seems far-fetched, have a read about the lost, high-quality, Apollo 11 moonwalk tapes. While the tapes were unfortunately never recovered, the team searching for them first had to build a machine that could actually read them. From the article:
the 14-inch reels were an archaic format, almost completely forgotten even at the space agency. After some sleuthing, Mackellar and his comrades discovered the one guy inside NASA who had the know-how – and the interest – to help them: Dick Nafzger. He was the last of the old Apollo video engineers still employed at the space agency.

Nafzger tracked down a buddy at the Data Evaluation Lab at Goddard Space Flight Center...The central treasure there was the analog recorder – a 7-foot-high gray machine with big black knobs and huge reel-to-reel spools. It looked like a prop from the '60s TV show Lost in Space, but the hulking gizmo was the only known piece of equipment that could read data from the ancient tapes.
The reason no one cared about preserving the machines that could read the old tape is because once upon a time they were readily available. For awhile after that, NASA probably kept a few in storage. Sooner or later, someone decided it was stupid to keep the old things around, and as a result, there was just one machine left in the entire country that could read the old format—and only one guy at NASA who knew where to find it.

Might want to tuck a floppy drive into your sock drawer. Just in case.