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Floppies left out of the storage race

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Floppies left out of the storage race 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

A few months ago I rented a garage-sized storage room because I had run out of space to keep things. The smaller shed I had been using was packed higher than I could reach.

The idea, of course, was to take everything out of the small shed and put it in the big one. Then I could stop renting the small shed and everything would be in one place, with lots of space to spare.

How I could have been so naive is hard to figure out. It didn't take long to fill up the the bigger shed with new things that I had to store. The smaller shed is still waiting for relief, its walls bulging. And I'm now paying for two storage areas every month.

AS I look back, I can see that I was the victim of an ancient syndrome. It goes something like this: You always have fewer places to store things than you have things to store.

Put another way, the axiom looks familiar to clerks and computer users all over the world: We always need more storage space than we have. Filing cabinets and floppy discs fill up very quickly, and we end up with entire rooms and entire hard-disc mechanisms full of paperwork or computer data.

And then we find we need more storage, and the process repeats itself.

Many large corporations and such federal agencies as the National Archives have learned that the only way to cope with this syndrome is to think big each time more storage space is needed. Instead of adding a few large rooms for document storage, they add a few large buildings.

They've also learned that computer information that had been stored on big reels of tape can be placed instead on small laser discs, which can each hold billions and billions of data bytes.

This holds a lot of promise for ordinary computer users, because we will soon be able to afford the same type of erasable laser discs that the big companies are starting to use. Right now they cost many thousands of dollars, but in a year or two they'll probably come down to a normal price range.

But computer laser discs aren't made to replace floppy discs. Floppies, which are cheap plastic discs coated with magnetic powder, have not kept pace with other computer storage devices. Five years ago they seemed too limited in their storage capacity, and today they seem even more so.

I'd love to report that floppy discs are about to join the revolution in mass storage, but the latest news from Japan has made me pessimistic. Trade publications from Japan, which is the center of technology for disc-drive manufacturing, say that the Japanese have virtually abandoned plans to introduce large-capacity floppy discs.

They had been working on floppies that could hold 10 to 20 times the amount of data that current floppy discs hold. A couple of American companies had already achieved the same thing, but all manufacturingówhether of a Japanese design or the American designsówould be done in Japan or one of the Pacific Rim countries anyway. This, in turn, meant that the Japanese would rather come up with their own product than make something that had been designed elsewhere.

But the timidity of the world's largest computer manufacturer apparently has derailed the Japanese super-floppy research. Industry insiders told the Japanese a few months ago that IBM had decided not to switch to super-floppies for its next-generation PCs, and so the Japanese reportedly have already geared up to manufacture the IBM design.

IBM'S new format provides only twice as much storage as current high-density discs. Total capacity will be 2.8 megabytes, about one-seventh the capacity of most of the rival super-floppy designs.

IBM's decision won't kill off the hopes of the floppy-drive researchers, but it is almost certain to keep them out of the largest market. All major PC manufacturers are expected to add the same type of drives as IBM.

It's possible that redesigned super floppies can be made to be compatible with the new IBM format—switching to the 2.8-megabyte mode when necessary—but research on that possibility has hardly begun.

That means IBM's approach will have a head start. And that, in turn, means that we're probably not going to be any closer to a solution to our day-to-day computer storage crunch in a year or two than we are now.

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