Back to the future: the legacy of the floppy disk
Oh, the 1980s! Those were the days of the Rubik’s Cube, the Pac-Man video game, and the movie Terminator. It was also the decade when personal computers were just starting to become mainstream, and the floppy disk was the main way to save and share files. But if you’re under 30, you may never have even seen a floppy disk, let alone used one.
Despite many wanting to resign the good old floppy to the history books, it turns out a lot of people still use this technology today—and some of the places that rely on floppies might surprise you.
What is a floppy disk?
A floppy disk is a small, square-shaped device used to store and transfer digital data. Developed by IBM in the 1960s, these disks gained popularity with the rise of desktop computers in homes and offices.
But with CD-ROMs, DVDs, and now flash drives and cloud storage—all of which offer much larger and faster storage capabilities—floppies became (nearly) obsolete. To give you an idea of how little data could be stored on a floppy, the BBC estimates that over 20,000 floppy disks would be needed to store the data a 32GB memory stick can hold.
Where floppy disks are still a way of life
Despite being considered outdated technology, floppy disks are still used in some industries and applications. Their resilience is due largely to their compatibility with older systems. For many systems, while it’s possible to switch to modern alternatives such as USB sticks, SD cards, or wireless transfer, it’s often too expensive and risky to change from something that still works.
According to Tom Persky, the president of floppydisk.com, floppies represent a form of storage that’s “extremely stable, extremely well-understood, not really hackable, and performs an unbelievably great job for very small bits of data.” As NPR’s Morning Edition reported in 2022, Persky salvages floppy disks from old stockpiles and resells them to everyone from computer hobbyists to the airline industry.
Yes, that’s right. The operating system for your next flight might have been installed using floppy disks made before you were born.
In fact, several types of aircraft use floppy disks. These include certain 747 and 767 models, as well as some Airbus A320s and older Gulfstreams.
In one example, Geosky, a cargo airline based in Tbilisi, Georgia, still uses floppy disks to update the systems of 747-200s that started out as part of the British Airways fleet in 1987. Company maintenance manager Davit Niazashvili told Wired,
“When an update is released, we need to download it to two 3.5-inch floppy disks. There are no computers with built-in floppy drives left, so we had to source an external one. Then we take the disks to the aircraft to update the flight management system. The operation takes about an hour.”
In addition to the airline industry, some musicians use vintage synthesizers that rely on floppy disks for storing and loading sounds or sequences, while archives and other organizations may have important data still stored on floppy disks. NASA and the US military also have equipment that relies on floppies. And people who collect and use vintage computers, video game consoles, and other electronics may need floppies to use their older devices.
Japan’s floppy disk problem
Not everyone waxes nostalgic when dealing with floppy disks. In Japan, digital minister Taro Kono declared a “war” on outdated storage media last fall, with a special call-out to floppy disks, which are apparently still quite popular. Many people in Japan still depend on legacy technologies, including the floppy disk, which is still widely used with home and office computers.
Kono might have his work cut out for him. The BBC notes that back in 2018, Yoshitaka Sakurada, then deputy chief of the country’s cyber-security office, publicly acknowledged that he had never used a computer.
The enduring floppy disk
And whether or not you use floppies (or have even seen one in the wild), one thing is for sure. The floppy disk has become a cultural icon, especially among the Gen X generation, and the little storage device has featured prominently in recent movies, television shows, and even emojis. 💾
And while we’re on the subject of floppies, who can forget this classic?