Die, Floppy, DIE! (The Floppy Rant)


The floppy rant

We live in an age where processors have reached an atomic minimum, a sound card has more processing power than Apollo 11, and where video cards become garage sale fodder within six months. CDs could once only be created by large studios with deep pockets, but is now a very common consumer item, and almost obsoleted by DVD. Why is it that one component is older than all these other technologies, but has survived through these new innovations?

I present to you the the 3.5″ floppy.

Originally designed by Sony, it quickly became a standard feature on IBM-compatible PCs (remember when they were called that?). The 3.5″ floppy drive was brand new on 286 computers in 1987, and is the only component that still remains in use today, practically unchanged in its 18 year history. It has a 1.44MB capacity and rotates at 360 revolutions per minute, yielding a transfer rate of 34 kB/s. Let’s put that in perspective with regard to the twenty-first century: Transferring a file to your computer from a computer 10,000 miles away on another continent is faster than copying it from your internal floppy drive.

I had done away with the floppy drive, even removing them from my systems. If I ever needed to boot from an ancient image, I created a custom boot CD. If I ever needed to flash my bios, I would boot a DOS floppy image from CD and then run the BIOS util from another burned CD. Sure using only 512K out of 700MB was a big waste, but it was easy.

…then Serial ATA came

I found myself needing to buy several floppies just to be able to install a clean copy of Windows XP onto a SATA drive. Unless you bought your motherboard in the past year, the Serial ATA controllers do not communicate natively with Windows and require a driver. If your hard drive is not recognized during your computer’s POST screen, then you will probably need to install a driver to install Windows (or any other operating system).

Microsoft hasn’t changed the way to add scsi controllers since Windows NT 3.51 (around the time of Windows 3.1). You must still have a floppy drive. If the floppy is truly dead, someone needs to alert Microsoft, the driving force of consumer technology on our planet. Why can’t Microsoft get the industry together to agree on a new method? Why can’t the windows installation BROWSE the driver CD that comes with all motherboards? Windows 98 will even create a boot disk with universal CD drivers, so it’s not like the driver doesn’t exist. Microsoft is confident enough to rely on this one universal driver enough for Windows 98, why not have CD support when installing XP?

I did kill two birds with one stone by getting a combo floppy drive/flash disk reader. They can be bought for $20 – $40 (about the same price as an internal flash-card reader), so it’s like getting a floppy for free and not wasting space.

Floppy drives DO come in handy for creating custom disk images when creating a bootable DVD. Some lazy motherboard manufacturers require the mainboard’s BIOS be flashed from DOS, which is easiest from a floppy drive. I admit that I have wasted entire CDs just to flash my motherboard’s bios because it was much easier to burn a 512K floppy image and BIOS than to physically reinstall a floppy drive. Otherwise I would have to go into the bios and enable everything needed to support booting from the floppy. It is all too time consuming, and when my computer is down, time is of the essence and the world stops spinning. So now I have floppy drives installed on EVERY ONE of my PCs, just in case something goes wrong. I have all my SATA drivers locked in a triple-ply fire-proof vacuum sealed earthquake-proof vault for when I have to inevitably install Windows from scratch. All of this trouble because the industry (well, Microsoft) will not let the floppy die.

Some may respond that drivers can be slipstreamed onto an installation CD (this can be done using the nlite program). This is true, and would eliminate the need for the floppy, but requires alot of work, and even more trial and error to get working properly. After a few coasters you might actually have a workable image. Those hardcore enough to do this probably also change their motherboards frequently, which could require a new slipstreamed image.

Microsoft can’t be getting any kick-backs for keeping the floppy alive… the floppy drive has too many moving parts, and can be bought for $10, so there is no way that anyone can be making a profit from their sale. The only conclusion I can come up with is laziness. Have you noticed the copyright on Microsoft Windows (1985 – 2003)? The 1985 code is probably the floppy support that MS won’t let die!

There are ways around having to use the floppy, but these methods are band-aids and does not fix the source of the problem (that the industry is supporting this antequated hardware). I was so near retiring the floppy disk in my systems that I hadn’t used one in years… until a few weeks ago when I ended up buying three. The advent of new technology has, ironically, prolonged the life of the floppy for yet a few more years… let’s hope it’s not another 18 years of waste.

Some technical information was obtained by Tom’s Hardware Guide

Alan is a web architect, stand-up comedian, and your friendly neighborhood Grammar Nazi. You can stalk him on the Interwebs via Google+, Facebook and follow his ass on Twitter @ocmodshop.