TechRepublic Tutorial: Don't be too quick to dump the floppy

Learn why you still may need a floppy drive

When I read recently that Dell is planning to offer some of its high-end consumer desktop systems without floppy disk drives, it was just more evidence that PC manufacturers have pronounced a premature death sentence on the venerable grandfather of removable media. Being a crotchety old advocate of floppy disks, I was incensed at such impudence, and decided to write a column about why the little plastic gizmos still have a place in the corporate computing environment.

But after doing a little homework, I realized I was too late. The floppy is, in fact, on death’s door, at least as far as the big hardware vendors are concerned.

A call to Dell’s small business sales department yielded the disheartening (at least to me) revelation that the company’s Optiplex line of affordable business desktop systems now comes preconfigured without floppy drives. The helpful sales agent did note that she could pop in a floppy drive for about $20, but instead suggested a free upgrade to a CD-RW drive. “Really, sir,” she told me politely, “the floppy drive is more or less becoming obsolete.”

About a year ago, TechRepublic members saw the floppy’s demise coming. In a series of online discussions, forward-thinking members argued that you really can’t store anything in 1.44 MBs anymore, and that CD-Rs cost about the same as floppies these days, anyway. Some stalwarts argued that backward compatibility, ERD issues, and the simple fact that floppies can fit into your shirt pocket are reason enough to keep grandpa out of the home for a while.

To the heap of pro arguments—which now really are no more than laments—let me add my own two cents.

No worthy replacement yet available
Floppies aren’t ready to die yet because no technology has evolved to completely assume the floppy’s useful function. Sure, someday vendors will settle on a ubiquitous removable media device that will make the floppy truly obsolete. But they haven’t yet, and killing off the incumbent to force the ascension of a new (i.e., more expensive) technology is a dangerous precedent. It’s how the big software vendors have been gouging IT budgets for years—does anybody really need Office XP?—and the practice’s traction in the hardware space should scare people.

Don’t get me wrong—I can still remember trading out a PageMaker application floppy with a document storage disk on an old Mac SE, so believe me, I’m perfectly happy to see the floppy disk fade into the realm of last resort. But I still use my own floppy drive all the time to shuffle e-mails and Office documents (which are still the bulk of data in most small and medium shops) from non-networked point to non-networked point. I even bought a low-end Toshiba laptop just because it has a floppy drive on board.

As a roving consultant, I don’t want to have to jack into a client’s network just to get my hands on a simple Excel sheet. In small shops, network connection is often not as easy as it sounds—I’ve bumped into three networks in the last six months that are assigning fixed IP addresses due to worries about neighbors inadvertently sniffing wireless access ports. Even as I was writing this column during a break at a client’s site, I grabbed a couple of JPEG attachments on my tried-and-true floppy drive.

At one shop, I had to have five CD-Rs burned just to get my hands on 15 simple Word docs. And it takes too long to burn and finalize a CD. Besides, it’s just unseemly to use 740 MB of storage for a 30 KB document.

In short, floppies still have a fleet of things going for them that no current removable media platform can match. Floppies are:
  • Cheap—Bulk floppies are about 40 cents each, roughly comparable to the cost of CD-Rs.
  • Rewritable—I can shuffle all kinds of files on and off of a diskette (I just love saying that word). Yes, CD-Rs are cheap, but CD-RWs still run about $1 a pop, even when purchased on a 100-count spindle.
  • Disposable—I’ve never had anybody ask me to return a floppy disk. Sure, IT guys throw away CD-Rs with impunity, but I just bristle at that kind of waste. And I doubt that anyone is going to hand over her key-ring USB drive to a clerk from accounts payable any time soon.
  • As secure as any other removable media device—I’m always a little baffled by the argument that getting rid of floppies somehow improves your network’s security. Unless you block out-bound e-mails, printing, and USB ports, your data can walk out of the office in about a million ways. Don’t blame the poor little floppy—remember, you can’t put anything substantial on them, anyway, according to their critics.
  • Fully integrated into the operating system—This is a big one for me. I can write to my floppy drive by simple drag-and-drop within Windows. Costly USB drives can match this ease of use, but I have to pop open a helper program to burn a CD—it’s actually a pretty big hassle, from a lazy end-user’s point of view.

So, I make this pronouncement on the demise of my old, plastic pals: You can take my floppy disks away when Microsoft integrates CD-RW burning (preferably mini-CD-RWs) into Windows, the process speeds up a bit, and the media price drops to under 60 cents or so.

Until then, I’ll keep shelling out $20 additional bucks for that obsolete floppy drive.

About Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

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