Worn out, but not gone: The person who won’t let go of the floppy disk

Worn out, but not gone: The person who won’t let go of the floppy disk

The last floppy disk was made over a decade ago and doesn’t have enough capacity to store modern smartphone photos, so why do some people still like to use it?

When an idea for a new piece of music began to swirl in Espen Kraft’s mind, he turned to one of his many boxes of floppy disks. Opening the lid, the musician and YouTuber from Norway stared at the rows of colorful plastic compartments inside. His fingers traveled through it, lightning fast.

“Bass sound from Moog” reads one label. Just what Kraft was looking for. He took out the disc and slammed it into his synthesizer. When the machine receives it, there is a clumsy yet reassuring sound. This part, says Kraft, is where the magic happens.

The sample is almost ready to play but not quite – the anticipation as it loads triggers a certain nostalgia, what Kraft calls, “a nice, warm, cozy place”. Ideas are flowing now. He pressed a key. His ears were full of sound.

If you remember when using floppy disks didn’t seem weird, you’re probably at least 30 years old. Floppy disks or diskettes appeared around 1970 and, for three decades or more, they were the main way many people stored and backed up their computer data. All the software and programs they buy are loaded onto this disk cluster. It was a technology from a different era of computing, but for various reasons the floppy disk had an enduring appeal to some that meant it was dead.

The original 8in (20cm) and 5.25in (13cm) floppy disks were actually floppy – you could bend them slightly without damaging the magnetic material inside.

But the 3.5in (8.75cm) disc was then arguably the most successful. This is what is immortalized as the “Save” icon in many computer applications to this day. The 3.5in discs, used by Espen Kraft, are small and rigid, not really floppy, but that means they’re both more robust and easier to store.

However, with the start of the 21st Century, for most computer users, floppy disks are on their way out – increasingly replaced by writable CDs and thumb drives. And now, cloud storage is everywhere. The most widely used type of floppy, with a maximum capacity of less than three megabytes, is difficult to compete with. Unless you fall in love with them – and some people do.

Some also depend on them. Various legacy industrial and government systems around the world still use floppy disks. Even some city transport systems run on them. And while these users are slowly dying off, a few are still hanging on, despite the fact that the last brand new floppy disk from Sony was in 2011. Nobody makes them anymore, meaning there are a limited number of floppy disks in the world – a scattered resource that decreasing. One day, they may disappear entirely. But not yet.

“I’ve always been very particular about keeping my floppies in a dry environment and not too humid,” says Kraft, who is in his early 50s. “Maybe one in 100 floppies go bad for me, once in a while.”

This is one of the risks faced by anyone who still uses this format. Kraft has spoken to people whose collections suffer from far more serious rates of damaged discs – perhaps they’re stored in attics or basements. Not a suitable habitat for an aging flounder.

If your floppy disk is damaged, you can still replace it as long as you have backed up your data. Tom Persky, a US businessman, has been selling “new”, such as unopened floppy disks for years and still finds the trade profitable. He runs Floppydisk.com, which offers disks for about US$1 (£0.80) each, although some higher-capacity versions cost up to US$10 (£8) per disk, he said. Persky has customers all over the world and you can split them roughly 50-50 into hobbyists and enthusiasts like Espen Kraft on the one hand and industry users on the other. This last category includes people who use computers at work that need floppy disks to function. They are, essentially, locked in a format that has largely been forgotten by the rest of the world.

“I still sell thousands of floppy disks to the airline industry,” Persky said. He declined to comment further. “Companies are not happy when I talk about them.”

But it is well known that some Boeing 747s, for example, use floppy disks to load critical software updates into their navigation and avionics computers. Although these older aircraft may not be very common in Europe or the US today, you may find one in the developing world, for example, the Persky pointer. There are also factory equipment, government systems – or even animatronic figures – that still rely on floppy disks.

And in San Francisco, the Muni Metro light rail, launched in 1980, won’t start each morning unless the staff in charge takes a floppy disk and inserts it into the computer that controls the train’s Automatic Train Control System, or ATCS. . “Computers need to be told what to do every day,” explained a spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). “Without a hard drive, there’s nowhere to permanently install software.”

The computer had to be restarted in such a way over and over, he added – it could not be left alone, for fear of its memory deteriorating.

In some sectors, legacy use of floppy disks is being phased out. In 2022, a Japanese politician “declares war” on the continued use of old media. Then, earlier this year, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that the government would no longer require businesses to submit official forms and applications on floppy disks. The US military still uses 8-inch (20cm) floppy disks for its nuclear weapons control system as of 2019. That summer, however, the military switched to a “highly secure solid-state digital storage solution”.

My absolute dream is to find an unpublished video game played by someone at home – Adrian Demleitner
There are other reasons why some organizations are reluctant to move away from using floppy disks. While there may be security risks in relying on older computer systems in the 21st Century, as ancient and patchless systems are inherently easier to hack, the physical nature of floppy disks also offers some protection. “If a floppy is the only interface, the only way to deliver malware to [a computer] is through the floppy,” said Ken Munro, cybersecurity expert at Pen Test Partners. “That’s the limiting factor for attackers,” he said.

However, the SFMTA is now, after four decades, securing a contract to upgrade its system, which will see Muni Metro’s floppy disks finally retired. The new computer will use wi-fi and cellular connections to beam updates wirelessly around the railway’s digital network.

Back in Norway, Kraft doesn’t want to move away from floppy disks anytime soon. And he has been careful to take some precautions with his aging collection.

Some of the audio samples that Kraft had stored in his giant floppy disk collection were irreplaceable. Over the years, he has collected sounds from countless exotic sources, such as a synthesizer he sampled from London in 1992. If such data were ever deleted, he knew he would 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 a backup. There is a copy of his most valuable audio files in the cloud and, just to be safe: “A big hard drive, which lives in a drawer on my wife’s desk in her office – in another city,” he said.

But this backup is just an insurance policy. It was the floppy itself that was so important to Kraft. His love of the format is what sets him, and others like him, apart from the so-called “old timers” who have just upgraded to some newer technology.

Kraft adored floppy disks because they helped him creatively, he said. He didn’t want to create music that only followed the style of the 1980s – instead, he wanted the music to sound like it actually came from that decade.

When Kraft used ancient equipment, he produced his best music, he said. Feel the roughness of the precious disc as it goes into the dusty old drive. In his opinion, more modern equipment with gigabytes of storage is out of reach. He also performs live with floppy disks and has used them during musical appearances on Norwegian television.

To this day, Kraft records new sounds and samples directly into this physical format, including crickets singing in the woods near his home in the evening. If you lower that din by 10 octaves or so, and add some reverb and some delay, then look: “You’ve got instant music,” says Kraft. “A very nice custom soundstage,” he said.

The eclecticism of recordings on Kraft floppy disks will not surprise Adrian Demleitner at the University of the Arts Bern in Switzerland. He and colleagues are in the process of gathering a floppy disk archive featuring video games and video game-related data for a research project into early digital sub-cultures.

Demleitner scoured the online marketplace and made contact with people who had old computer systems for sale because, often, those systems came with floppy disk boxes. Typically, he and the seller arrange a meeting in public for the handover. “Sometimes you get weird looks [from people],” Demleitner said, recalling a recent exchange at a local cafe.

But the disc he bought was a treasure. He finds old games, as well as keeps data that records the progress people made in various games they played decades ago. Then there’s all the other non-gaming stuff: electronic music, spreadsheets – even a list of every movie someone has in their home collection.

“My absolute dream is to find an unpublished video game that someone plays at home,” Demleitner said. He said building an archive was a “huge responsibility”. But it’s fun too. He likes to use the floppies himself, manually searching through piles of them in a whirl of discovery, then loading whatever he finds on some ancient hardware.

In England, IT manager Karl Dyson also had a fascination with video games that came on floppy disks. Specifically, for the Amiga 500, an early home computer from the late 1980s.

Dyson runs Retro32.com, a website and store for enthusiasts of similar media. He sells all sorts of retro gaming kits – even newly minted floppy disk labels. In his own collection are about 1,000 floppy disks, he said, explaining that he also offers a service where he copies games for people who find their beloved disks dead or damaged. Two of his favorite titles are Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder.

“Loading old games from a USB stick doesn’t really give you that touch, that smell that we had as kids,” Dyson said. “When you run a game or software from a floppy disk, it makes it an event.”

Dyson said that he and many of his friends reconnected with the technology during the Covid-19 lockdown and now the Amiga community is “thriving”. He points out that there are still people making new games and releasing them on floppy disks, or porting popular games to floppy disks so you can run them on older hardware. Cecconoid, a 2D sci-fi exploration game, is a recent example, he explained.

There’s also the fact that, for most people, floppy disks just work. Maya Sapiurka, a neuroscientist and writer in Washington DC, recalls using floppy disks in a university lab while pursuing her PhD, as recently as 2016. “I would talk about this all the time with my friends,” she admits. “We all thought it was really funny.”

But there’s no real problem with using the disk – in this case, to record data from a sensor system that tracks the movement of mice in a cage. Sapiurka’s PhD is on parts of the brain involved in long-term memory, including spatial memory. Occasionally, he had to reformat the floppy disk to get it to work as intended but, overall, he found the system reliable. “They did what we needed them to do,” he said. “I think that’s kind of academic.” Why spend grant money to upgrade fundamentally good technology?

Christian Donohoe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, agrees. He still uses floppy disks for some of his lab work today. “It’s a very ce system kap, everything works fine,” he said. In his case, he used a floppy disk to store data from an instrument that measured the exact wavelength of light reflected from a sample of material. This helped him study the chemical bonds in the material.

Donohoe makes another point – if you want to replicate results from a paper that’s 20 or 30 years old, your best bet is to use the same equipment and methods that the authors used when they did the experiment in question. Computers that rely on floppy disks, among others, may help you recreate the conditions of 40 years of study as honestly as possible.

The hissing sound, and the clicking sound, the sound of the boot – which brings me back – Epson Kraft
However, over time, there is little doubt that it will become increasingly difficult to continue using floppy disks, whether for work or pleasure. With no one making them anymore, computer systems that read floppy disks will only become more difficult to maintain.

In many industries and walks of life, it is difficult to cling to floppy disks forever. Kirsten Swanson, of Embroidery.com, says many embroidery machines have a built-in floppy drive that allows you to insert a disk, after which the machine will dutifully stitch your design onto a piece of fabric. As a teenager, she worked at a local embroidery shop and remembers using discs with designs for company logos or fancy word art. One is a cowboy hat and a pair of boots that are “artfully arranged”, he says: “It could be almost any picture.”

However, Swanson has not used such a machine himself for several years now. And she recalled the disappointment she felt when her husband replaced their home computer with a model that no longer included a floppy disk drive.

“The thing I miss about floppy disks,” says Swanson, “is that they’re quite small but they’re big enough to have a picture of a design or words on there.” It used to be so easy to flip through his image library and pick the one he wanted. Digital storage, on the other hand, is “invisible” to the naked eye, Swanson said. Sometimes, embroiderers have trouble organizing their designs and remembering what they have if they just keep them on a laptop or USB stick. Therefore, some who still have access to floppy disk-based systems, continue to use them today.

When you look at it, it’s no wonder that floppy disks have stuck around so long in some people’s lives. The format, the medium itself, has unique attributes that set it apart. For some applications, to be sure, floppy disks are more than a disappointment. Why keep dragging around this technological fossil that only offers a few megabytes of storage? Instead, for most people, that little plastic and metal compartment opens the door.

“The floppy disk itself is just a tool – but a tool can be important,” says Kraft, reflecting on his own collection once more. “Those moments of waiting. The hiss, and the click, the boot – that brings me back.”

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