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The evolution of personal computing – can you remember the floppy disk?

By Paul Lyons - Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

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If you showed children a floppy disk, they’d probably wonder why you were holding a physical version of the ‘save’ icon. But its easy to forget just how instrumental the humble floppy disk was in the evolution of personal computing.

 

It began way back in 1971 with the 8-inch drive, which allowed computer users to get rid of paper tape and punch cards – the two portable media alternatives at the time.

 

However, it wasn’t until the development of the 5.25-inch model that allowed floppy disks to break through to the larger consumer market. This was thanks in large part to a man called Steve Jobs, who championed the use of 5.25-inch floppy drives with the Apple II in 1977.

 

In many respects, this was the beginning of personal computing…

 

How the floppy disk changed everything

 

According to IBM’s history of the floppy disk, this new technology offered an advanced in terms of of user-friendliness.

 

“Perhaps the greatest impact of the floppy wasn’t on individuals, but on the nature and structure of the IT industry,” says IBM. “Up until the late 1970s, most software applications for tasks such as word processing and accounting were written by the personal computer owners themselves.

 

“But thanks to the floppy, companies could write programs, put them on the disks, and sell them through the mail or in stores.”

 

Following on from the success of Apple II, the majority of CP/M-80 PCs from the late 70s used the 5.25-inch floppy drive. It continued to be the portable storage format of choice throughout the early 80s, incorporating another set of heads to hold up to 360K of data.

 

A variety of other floppy drives and disk formats soon started to appear, with the 3.5-inch version introduced by Sony proving the most popular. Along with approval and adoption by the industry’s biggest players, the 3.5-inch gained traction due to its pocket-sized format and sturdy construction.

 

But as with nearly every other type of technology, the floppy disk drive had a limited shelf life, ultimately losing out to read-writable CDs and DVDs. The data storage capabilities of USB flash drives was the final nail in the coffin.

 

However, without floppy disk drives, the computer as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist.

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