In an industry where products and components seem to metamorphose overnight, the floppy drive is an anomaly. Since IBM featured it with its PS/2 computers in 1987, the 1.44-megabyte floppy drive has remained virtually unchanged, and it still comes bundled with most PCs today.
The floppy drive has tenaciously held on because it and the disks used with it are inexpensive and reliable. And because floppy disks are so portable, you can pop one into your shirt pocket.
But as file sizes grow larger, it's becoming clear that the floppy drive's days are numbered.
The name "floppy," incidentally, can be confusing, since today's floppies are made with a rigid plastic casing. But inside the casing is a flexible Mylar disk, in contrast to the rigid aluminum platters used by hard disks.
Floppy drives are part of a larger category of storage products called removable media drives. You should expect some dramatic changes over the next several years with high-capacity versions of these drives, but nobody knows yet what will emerge as the industry-standard replacement for the floppy drive.
One force behind the demise of the floppy drive is Apple, the first major manufacturer to ship mainstream systems sans floppy drives. Problem is, it doesn't include a replacement with its iMacs or G3s, which has led to considerable criticism.
Apple expects people to exchange files over the Internet. Though this is an option, it's not often the fastest or most convenient.
The high-capacity removable media drive that has the most market share today is the Zip drive from Iomega, at www.iomega.com/zip. Zip drives come in 100-megabyte or newer 250-megabyte versions.
On the plus side, because Zip drives, which are available for both PCs and Macs, are so plentiful, chances are better than with other high-capacity removable disks that you'll be able to use one to exchange data with other users.
On the minus side, Zip drives aren't backward-compatible - they can't read data from conventional floppy disks. Also, you may not be able to boot an older PC with a Zip drive if its hard drive fails, and not all Zip drives can be used this way.
Another possible replacement for the floppy drive is the SuperDisk drive, also called the LS-120. This drive, which is used with 120-megabyte disks, was developed by 3M spin-off Imation, at www.super disk.com. Several second-source makers, including Winstation, at www.winstation. com, and Hi-Val, at www.hival. com also sell it.
Though released later than Zip disks, SuperDisks are bootable and backward-compatible with conventional floppy disks. SuperDisk drives are available for Macs, come standard with some Compaq PCs, and are offered as options with new PCs from Dell, Gateway and other vendors.
Other products could emerge as dark horses, the most likely of which is the High Capacity Floppy Disk (HiFD) from Sony, at www.ita.sel.sony.com/jump/hifd. The HiFD looks great on paper, sporting a capacity of 200 megabytes, fast performance and backward compatibility.
HiFD drives haven't done well in practice, however. After being introduced in the fall of 1998, they were quickly withdrawn from the market by Sony due to performance glitches, a result of their complex design. Sony says it plans to offer improved HiFD drives. And there are still other possibilities, including rewritable CD-ROMs, Caleb's UHD 144, CompactFlash and other solid-state memory now used primarily by digital cameras, and other technologies still on the drawing board.