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1.44 MB of data on 3.5 inches

Every time you click ‘Save’, do you ever stop to think what happened to that iconic device pictured on it?

Published: 07th August 2013 08:39 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th August 2013 08:39 AM   |  A+A-

07time

“Make sure you save your work. Click on the little Floppy Disk icon on top.”

Computer teachers in schools today, let alone the future, will not be able to say this to their students and expect them to understand. Why? Because students today don’t know what a floppy disk is! That little piece of technology became obsolete some time towards the end of the last millennium, and is now only found on the ‘Save’ button of some software packages. Have you not noticed that your new computer (or anything you bought in the last ten years or so) does not have a floppy drive?

Once upon a time, the 3.5 inch disk, which was technically titled the ‘microfloppy’ but usually referred to as ‘floppy’ as we used to call it was an integral part of data storage and transfer. They cost `10-20 apiece, if I remember right, and offered 1.44 MB of storage (the later ones, at least). Surprisingly, most of the routine files we used and the most popular games of those days fit comfortably on it.

Some games, such as Golden Axe which immediately comes to mind, required two floppies. If one was playing on a computer without a hard disk for storage, the game often called on you to switch between disks. Imagine the frustration of an avid gamer getting ready to pound the virtual villain to death when the computer pauses the game and opens up a message window saying “Please Insert Disk 2 to Continue”. And it didn’t end there. After a while one would be asked to insert Disk 1 again.

There existed 8 inch floppy disks, which offered up to a few hundred kilobytes of storage, and also a 5.25 inch version (the minifloppy) offering slightly more than that, but those got extinct by the time computers became popular in our part of the world. I was able to see one actual 5.25 inch floppy in my time, which my mother had saved some files to be used in her research. I remember being confused how such a large floppy could fit into the 3.5 inch drive, which in my limited knowledge was the one and only ‘floppy’ drive in the word. Most people in my generation would have used only the 3.5 inch floppy, and those a few years later than us are unlikely to have used any floppy disk at all.

And looking back at those days, it wasn’t really easy to actually use a floppy disk! For one, each pack of 10 usually had one or two defective ones (in my experience), which meant you had to be really lucky to choose the right ones from what you had purchased for your needs. Also, since these disks were based on magnetics, you had to keep them away from strong (or even weak) magnetic fields such as those in a television, speakers, etc. Dropping one on the floor was also likely to wreck whatever you had stored in it, although the plastic exterior looked like it could handle a bump or two. Even if you had protected your floppy disk like your life depended on it, you needed to be awfully lucky to be able to paste on one computer whatever you had copied from another. This is because some floppies appeared to simply decide to go blank or corrupt the data in it, for no apparent reason. I remember a friend advising me to keep a disobedient floppy in the refrigerator overnight to see if it would be good and start working the next day onwards. I did not try it out.

The floppy disk was phased out, as more powerful and easier-to-handle devices became available. No computer on the market comes with a floppy drive today, as far as I know. I have heard that Apple did that first, providing a USB in place of a floppy drive in their Macs - but that is up for debate.  Compact Disks soon came into the picture, followed by DVDs and recordable and rewritable versions of those two. Somewhere in between, Zip drives and Laser Disks came and went without much traction among computer users. For those who are unfamiliar with them, let me briefly touch upon them.

A Zip drive was a muscular looking, noticeably larger version of a floppy disk, which offered a 100 MB or so of storage. I have seen only one so far in an actual home PC, belonging to a technology enthusiast uncle of mine, and that was in the late 1990s. A Laser Disk, which I also remember seeing only at his place, looked like a CD in structure, but was the size of an old vinyl record - if readers remember what that used to look like. I remember watching James Bond movie ‘Golden Eye’ on it, on a player similar to VCD/DVD players of today.

I am not stepping into what the world of data storage looks like today. But it is very interesting to note that despite all those advancements in technology, nothing has been able to push the floppy disk away from its place on the Save button!

— (aravind.r@newindianexpress.com)



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