Data storage mechanisms have come a long way since IBM proudly introduced the first “memory disk” in 1971. By the end of the ’70s, a number of manufacturers were churning out 5.25-in. floppy disks. Sony introduced the now-ubiquitous 3.5-in. floppy disk and drive in 1981.

But the death knell is tolling for the floppy. Major computer manufacturers such as Dell and HP are dropping the floppy drive as a standard. So what device will replace floppies? The answer may not be as cut and dried as you think. Here are the pros and cons of alternative technologies.

What’s wrong with the floppy?
Floppies are on the way out because the disks have such a measly storage capacity and are prone to failure of the moving parts inside.

Software companies are moving to CD-ROMs because of the size of today’s applications (Apple got out of the floppy game in 1998 when it launched the iMac.) With the use of floppies falling, here are alternative technologies.

Memory keys
Memory keys, devices that are literally about the size of a key, run through the USB port and can use both USB versions 1.1 and 2.0. Memory keys work using flash memory, the same strategy used in PDAs, cell phones, and some networking products. Flash memory is ideal for memory keys because it retains data without a power source. Added to this, even the low-capacity models have at least 16 MB of space on them, which is 11 times more capacity than a floppy.

Dell, in particular, is keen to offer its branded version of the key as a replacement technology for the floppy. In terms of pricing, Dell wants to be able to offer either of the components as a direct swap. The memory key’s capacity would be 16 MB and cost around $20, but Dell has suggested that if the idea really takes off and customers continuously order higher-capacity memory keys in the 64-MB range (approx $60), the company will likely market ever-larger capacity versions.

Memory keys are great, but because they only work through the USB interface, you cannot boot a machine from them. This is a problem that is being addressed and I am certain that before too much longer, a USB boot protocol will emerge from BIOS manufacturers.

Optical storage
If you’ve recently purchased PCs in your shop, then chances are a CD-R (recordable) or CD-RW (rewritable) drive was included. The price of CD-R and CD-RW drives has fallen dramatically over the last couple of years. The media hold 700 MB (equivalent to 486 floppies), and speeds are now in the 48x and higher range. CD-RW media are a little pricier and the rewriting speeds are still a little slow, but if you need to back up files every day and you don’t want to keep using up CD-R discs (and can’t afford a tape drive), then CD-RW might be your best option.

A new kind of optical drive, the DVD writer, is also available now. This device will act as a CD-ROM drive, a CD-RW, and a DVD-R. These drives are still a little expensive, but the prices are falling and so are the prices of the DVD media the drives use. Writing speeds are not yet in the same as ballpark as CD-R, with the fastest DVD writer I’ve found clocking in at 16x. Even so, these triple-purpose drives may be an attractive alternative.

Optical storage is also bootable because virtually every BIOS now comes with a CD-ROM boot option as standard. This is a definite advantage over memory keys and could be very important if you have a crashed machine.

Zip drives
Before optical storage became a financially viable method of data storage for businesses and Joe Public alike, Iomega’s ZIP drive was extremely popular. ZIP drives can be internal, external, IDE, SCSI, USB, and parallel port. They are a good solution in some situations, but these are their main weaknesses:

  • Maximum data storage is now 750 MB per disk—but only Iomega media can be used.
  • There have been reports of some reliability problems—the so-called “Click of Death”—which can result in data corruption and necessitate drive replacement.
  • The ZIP parallel port device is cheaper, but the interface is very slow.
  • SCSI versions require a separate SCSI card, which adds to overall expense.
  • ZIP drives are now often more expensive than a basic CD writer.
  • There is no support for booting a machine from a ZIP drive.

The Superdisk
There is also the Superdisk, a technology from Imation. Essentially, this is a disk drive that uses very high density diskettes, up to 240 MB. These devices can run through IDE, parallel, or PCMCIA. Apart from the high capacity, the drive is also backwards compatible with 3.5-in. disks. Some versions are also bootable.

Going, going, gone
Overall, memory keys look to be the most promising substitute for floppy technology. Their size and the fact that capacity will grow (256 MB is already available) increase their chances of gaining market share. As for the IT support community, who often need to use floppies for system-recovery booting and/or imaging, memory key manufacturers would do well to address this market, perhaps with a key that is bootable and also offers different boot options selected by the support tech.