Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

Old, but not forgotten. Why some people do not give up floppy disks

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Jul6,2024

Old but not forgotten. Why some people don't give up floppy disks

The last floppy disk was manufactured more than 10 years ago , and it doesn't have enough memory to store images from modern phones, so why do some people still love using floppy disks?

When an idea for a new tune begins to swirl in Espen Craft's head, he goes to one of his many boxes of floppy disks. Opening the lid, the musician and YouTuber from Norway looks down at the rows of colored plastic squares inside. His fingers fly over them lightning fast.

“Bass from Moog” – written on one of the labels. Just what Kraft was looking for. He takes the floppy disk and inserts it into the synthesizer. Clumsy but soothing sounds are heard. This part, Kraft says, is where the magic happens.

The sample is almost playable, but not quite – the very wait while it loads evokes a certain nostalgia for what Kraft calls “a nice, warm, cozy place.” He presses a key and his ears fill with sound.

If you remember a time when using floppy disks didn't seem weird, you probably at least 30 years old.

Floppy disks appeared around the 1970s and for a long three decades or so remained the main way many people stored and backed up their computer data.

All software and applications they purchased were loaded onto their clusters. It's technology from another era of computing, but for various reasons, floppy disks continue to appeal to some people.

The original 20 and 13 cm floppy disks (translated from English – floppy disks) were indeed flexible – they could be bent slightly without damaging the magnetic material inside.

But the later version of floppy disks (8.75 cm) is considered the most successful. They can be seen as a “save” icon in many computer programs even today. It is these floppy disks that Aspen Craft uses, they are small and hard, no longer flexible, but this means that they are stronger and easier to store.

With the beginning of the 21st century, diskettes began to become obsolete for most computer users – they were increasingly supplanted by CDs and flash drives. Cloud storage is now ubiquitous. The most common type of floppy disk with a memory of just under 1.5 MB can hardly compete with the “cloud”. are in love with floppy disks, and some people are in love.

There are also those who depend on them. A variety of legacy industrial and government systems around the world still use floppy disks. Even some public transport systems rely on them. And while these users are slowly dying out, a few are still hanging on, despite the fact that Sony produced the last new floppy disk in 2011.

No one makes them anymore , that is, there is a limited number of diskettes in the world, which is gradually decreasing. One day they may disappear completely. But not today.

The world of enthusiasts and bureaucrats

“I've always been meticulous about storing my floppies in a dry environment, – says Kraft, who is in his late 50s. class=”bbc-1y32vyc e17g058b0″>This is one of the risks that anyone who still uses this format faces. Kraft spoke to people who have more damaged floppy disks in their collections – perhaps they were stored in the attic or basement. Not an ideal environment for floppy disks to age.

If your floppy disks become damaged, they can still be replaced if you have backed up your data. Tom Persky, an American businessman, has been selling “new”, that is, unopened floppy disks for years, and still finds this trade profitable.

He runs Floppydisk.com – site that sells diskettes for a dollar apiece, though some higher-capacity versions cost up to $10 a diskette, he says.

Persky has customers in all over the world, among them about 50% are amateurs and enthusiasts, like Expen Craft, and 50% of people who need floppy disks for work. The last category covers those who use computers that require floppy disks to function. That is, these computers are tied to a format that the rest of the world has almost forgotten about.

“I still sell thousands of diskettes to airlines,” Persky says, declining to elaborate. “The companies are not happy when I tell them about them.”

But it is well known that some Boeing 747s, for example, use diskettes to download important software updates to their navigation and avionics computers. While these older planes may not be as common in Europe or the US today, you can find them in developing countries, Persky hints.

There are also parts of factory equipment or even government systems that still rely on floppy disks.

And in San Francisco, Muni Metro, launched in 1980, won't start in the morning until its employees take a floppy disk and insert it into the computer that controls the train's automatic control system.

“The computer needs to be told what to do every day, – explains a representative of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. – Without a hard drive, there is nowhere to install software on a permanent basis.”

This computer must be constantly rebooted, he adds – you can't just leave it on, because the quality of the memory may deteriorate.

In some industries, the use of floppy disks is being phased out.

In 2022, a Japanese politician “declared war” on the permanent use of old carriers. Subsequently, earlier this year, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that the government would no longer require companies to submit official forms and applications on floppy disk. The Japanese government has declared a final “victory” over floppy disks, abolishing these rules from July 2024.

The US military was still using 20cm floppy disks for its nuclear weapons control system in 2019. But that summer they switched to a “high-security solid-state digital data storage system”.

Is it safe-at-all

There are other reasons why some organizations are reluctant to abandon the use of floppy disks. Although in the 21st century, the use of old computer systems can be a security risk, because old systems are in principle easier to hack, the physical nature of floppy disks also provides some protection.

“If a floppy disk were the only interface available, the only way to get malware onto a computer would be through a floppy disk,” says Ken Munro, a cybersecurity expert at Pen Test Partners. “That's quite a limiting factor for a hacker.”< /p>

However, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is now, after four decades, procuring contracts to upgrade its systems, which will lead to the eventual retirement of the Muni Metro diskettes. The new computers will use Wi-Fi and cellular to transmit updates to the railway's digital network.

Returning to Norway, Kraft has no plans to give up floppy disks anytime soon. And he's trying to take better care of his collection, which is aging every day.

Some of the audio samples that Kraft has amassed in his gigantic collection are irreplaceable. Over the years, he has collected sounds from countless exotic sources, such as the London synthesizer of 1992.

If such samples are ever erased, he knows he will never be able to find the original source again. So in addition to the thousands of floppy disks he keeps in boxes at his home in Norway, Kraft also has backups.

Backups of his most valuable audio files are in the cloud and, just in case, on “a large hard drive that lives in my wife's desk drawer in her office – in another city”.

But these backups are just insurance. For Kraft, the floppy disks themselves are really important. His love for the format — it's what separates him and others like him from the so-called “legacy users” who simply haven't switched to the new technology yet.

Kraft loves floppy disks because they help him create, says the musician. He doesn't want to make music that simply imitates the styles of the 1980s – he rather wants it to sound like it really came from that decade.

He is convinced that when he uses outdated equipment, he creates his best music. Feel the solidity of this precious disc as it slides into a dusty drive. In his opinion, more modern equipment with gigabytes of memory is nowhere near suitable. Kraft even performed live with floppy disks and used them during his musical performances on Norwegian television.

To this day, Kraft records new sounds and samples directly to floppy disk, including the chirping of crickets in the evening woods near his home. If you turn that cacophony down about 10 octaves and add some reverb and a little delay, “you've got music in no time,” says Craft. “Very nice individual sound stage”, – he adds.

The eclectic nature of Kraft's diskette recordings would not have surprised Adrian Demleitner of the Bern University of the Arts in Switzerland. He and his colleagues are collecting an archive of video game disks and related data for a research project on early digital subcultures.

Demleitner goes to online marketplaces and contacts people selling old computer systems, because those systems often come with a box of floppy disks. As a rule, he and the seller agree on a public meeting for the handover.

“Sometimes people look at us strangely,” – says Demleitner, recalling a recent exchange with a vendor at a local cafe.

But the discs he buys – it is a treasure. It found old games and also saved data about people's progress in different games they played decades ago. In addition, there are all kinds of other things not related to games: electronic music, spreadsheets – even a list of all the movies someone had in their home collection.

“My absolute dream – is to find unreleased video games that someone has been tinkering with at home” , – says Demleitner.

He adds that creating an archive – it is a “great responsibility”. But it's also nice. He likes to use floppies himself, manually rummaging through boxes in anticipation of discoveries, then booting whatever he finds onto some archaic piece of equipment.

In England, IT manager Carl Dyson is also fond of video games that were on floppy disks. Specifically for the Amiga 500, an early home computer from the late 1980s.

Dyson runs Retro32.com, a site and store for like-minded fans of retro media. It sells a wide range of retro playset – even newly printed floppy disk labels. He has about 1,000 diskettes in his collection. It also offers a game copying service for people who find their favorite floppy disk is dead or corrupted.

“Downloading old games from a USB stick doesn't really give you the touch and smell of what we experienced as kids,” – says Dyson.

Dyson says he and many of his friends got back in touch with floppies during the covid lockdown and now the Amiga community is “thriving “. He says there are still people creating new games and releasing them on floppy disks, or porting popular games to floppy disks so they can run on older hardware. Cecconoid, a 2D sci-fi exploration game, is one recent example, he explains.

Also, for many people, floppy disks are good because they just work. Maya Sap’yurka, a neuroscientist and writer from Washington, remembers how back in 2016 she used floppy disks in a university lab while earning her Ph.D.

” I would talk about it all the time, she admits. We all thought it was very funny.”

And yet she had no problem using the floppy disks – in her case, to record data from a sensor system that tracked the movements of rats in an enclosure.

Sap’yurka's doctoral work is devoted to the parts of the brain involved in long-term memory, in particular spatial. From time to time she had to reformat the floppies to get them to work properly, but overall she found the system reliable.

“They did what we needed them to do, – she says. – I think that's the nature of academia.” Why spend grant money to upgrade technology that is mostly normal?

Christian Donohoe, a doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen, agrees. He still uses floppy disks for some of his lab work today.

“It's a very efficient system, everything works well,” – he says.

Donoho uses floppy disks to store data from an instrument that measures the precise wavelengths of light reflected from samples of material. This helps him study the chemical bonds of a specific material.

Donohoe makes another point: If you want to replicate the results of a study that's 20 or 30 years old, it's best to use the same equipment and methods that its authors used in the experiment. Floppy disk-dependent computers can help recreate the research conditions of 40 years ago as closely as possible.

Nostalgia for the past

But over time, it will no doubt become increasingly difficult to continue using floppy disks for work or pleasure. Nobody makes them anymore, and it will become more difficult to maintain computer systems that read floppy disks.

In many industries and spheres of life, it is difficult to hold on to floppy disks indefinitely. . Kirsten Swanson of Embroidery.com says that many embroidery machines have built-in diskette drives that allow you to insert a diskette and the machine will faithfully embroider your design onto a piece of fabric.

As a teenager, she worked at a local embroidery shop and remembers using floppy disks with designs of company logos or artistic text. One was a cowboy hat and a pair of boots that were “artistically arranged,” she says: “It could have been any image.”

But Swanson has not used that car for several years. And she recalls the fear she felt when her husband replaced their home computer with a model that no longer had a floppy disk drive.

“What I miss about floppy disks is that they are relatively small, but also large enough to have a design image or words on them,” – says Swanson.

It used to be so easy for her to flip through a library of images and pick the one she wanted. Digital storage, by contrast, is “invisible” to the naked eye, Swanson says. Sometimes embroiderers find it difficult to organize their designs and remember what they have if they only store them on a laptop or USB drive. So some of them who still have access to floppy-based systems continue to use them to this day. it's no wonder why floppy disks stay in some people's lives for so long. This media has unique attributes that distinguish it from others.

Of course, for some applications, floppy disks – it is nothing more than a disappointment. Why continue dragging these technological fossils that offer only a few megabytes of memory? But on the other hand, for many people, these little boxes of plastic and metal open many doors.

“Floppy disks themselves — are just tools, but tools can matter,” – says Kraft, reflecting on his collection.

“Those seconds of waiting. The buzzing, clicking, loading – it all takes me back.”

Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my natasha@thetimeshub.in 1-800-268-7116

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