The slow, inexorable, unnoticed death of physical media

Physical media, of course, I mean transportable formats, not your hard drive, which I hope doesn’t hang around in your backpack. I’m talking about floppy disks, tapes, punched cards and the like.

Answer quickly: If someone sees a photo on your computer and says “I like it, send it to me”, what do you do? If you’re old-school, send me an email with the photo attached. If it’s more modern, open your phone, access the shared album in the cloud, select “share” and send it to your friend.

It wasn’t always so easy.

I know it’s hard to believe, but computers haven’t always been connected. It was perfectly normal for you to have multiple computers in a company, with no way of talking to each other, let alone computers in other locations. The most common communication protocol was not TCP/IP, it was DPLDPC, Floppy For There, Floppy For Here.

In some cases, when it was imperative to transfer a large amount of data between two computers, this was called upon:

Recognized? Great, the vaccine is up to date, right? (Credit: Internet Reproduction)

It is a Laplink cable, which using proprietary software connected the parallel ports between the two computers. The speed was around 115kbps, which was reasonable for the time. Incredibly, Laplink still exists and continues to release new products.

Those who started with the 5¼ floppy found the 3½ inch disks to be a huge evolution, and for many years they served perfectly, but Moore’s Law gave us more powerful computers, the software became more complex and we got to the point where the Windows 98 installation required 39 floppy disks, if you were the unlucky corn-digo who didn’t have a CD-ROM drive.

The big change came in 1998, when Apple forced the market and released the iMac G3, committing the supreme heresy of not including a floppy drive. The only physical media option was a flash drive, in the USB port, itself a novelty, the USB 1.0 standard was released in 1996.

Pendrives lived together for a long time with floppy disks, and several alternative formats emerged, such as the Zip Drive, the Iomega Click!, and the more professional versions, such as the Bernoulli disks and the Jazz Drive, also from Iomega, but these professional solutions were professionally expensive, and even the Zip Drive didn’t reach critical mass to become something you could casually lend to a friend to copy some games.

Physical media continued to evolve, flash drives with more and more capacity, memory cards of all shapes and sizes, but never reached the detachment of floppy disks. Nobody begged (much) floppy disks, we always had a box of blank disks for some need, except once when a bad-say, like he asked me to pirate the CorelDraw CD-Rom for him. I sent it back with 400 floppy disks. He didn’t like it.

The price of flash drives continued to fall. Back when I covered technology and attended media events, it was common in press kits to come with a flash drive, with all the releases, photos and videos. It was excellent. But as all good things come to an end one day, the pendrives were scarce, now the releases all go to the cloud, the photos and videos in a OneDrive or GDrive link.

Kids are joked about calling floppy disks a 3D-printed save icon, but when was the last time you used a floppy disk? I do not remember. Pendrive is easier, it was yesterday, I used a dual pendrive (USB on one end and microUSB on the other) to transfer files to my xing-ling tablet that I use to read comics. Other than that, my use of flash drives is zero.

Everyday physical media is becoming a niche solution, like a flash drive to load files into a 3D printer.

Professionally, proprietary solutions have kind of disappeared. Anyone who needs to physically transport a large amount of data uses an external hard drive, preferably an SSD.

Anyone who wants to play seriously can hire this toy here:

Rudeness defines. (Credit: Seu Bezos’s grocery store)

It’s the AWS Snowmobile, an armored container from Amazon, instead of passing through years old transmitting data to the servers in the cloud, you hire the Snowmobile, it parks in front of your company with a complete datacentre, you pull a cable and transfer up to 100 Petabytes, which are then physically taken to the Amazon datacentre, and the data is downloaded to your contracted servers.

OK, back to us mere mortals.

The transition from floppy disks to flash drives was not a smooth one, and in the early days of home computing, floppy disks were the stuff of cheapskates. Enthusiastic children, who have already cut a fold to convince their parents to buy a “computer”, which in their view was useless and even ruined the television, rarely got the extra for a floppy drive.

The companies’ brilliant solution was to find a cheap, ubiquitous storage medium that even a child could use. This peripheral AK-47 was the good old K7 recorder.

Some computers like the Commodore PET came with a recorder included. Others, like the ZX Spectrum, used any recorder available. Gradiente’s MSX Expert came with the DataCorder DR-1, an almost miniature recorder, with the option to use batteries and it was the most beautiful thing in the world.

Commodore PET, with built-in recorder. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At standard speed the ZX Spectrum recorded and read data analogically at a speed equivalent to 1,365kbps. A 60-minute tape held the equivalent of 0.6MB, which doesn’t seem like much, but a Spectrum program took up a maximum of 48KB.

Products emerged that tried to adapt the VCR as a storage device, particularly for backups, but if the K7 tape was unreliable, the VCR was the dark. Lazy Game Review did a good review on such a system.

Of all these physical media, one in particular I find fascinating, but unfortunately I never came close. It is the medium with which Bill Gates and Paul Allen loaded the first BASIC onto the Altair 8800 decades ago in Albuquerque and started Microsoft. This media? The perforated tape.

A copy of Microsoft’s Altair BASIC 8K (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The technology comes from telex terminals, later used in mainframes. The concept is beautifully simple. The machine uses a paper ribbon with five horizontal positions. Each of them represents a bit. With a hole, it’s zero, without a hole, it’s one. Everyone calls it Baudot, but the format evolved and at the time of Altair BASIC, every terminal used Western Union’s ITA2 code, to encode the Latin alphabet and some control characters in 5 bits.

The punched tape is uniquely elegant, it can be used as terminal emulation, sending data as if it were being typed, or directly as serial data.

You store the programs in elegant round boxes. Properly tagged. Your data is immune to all sorts of magnetic interference, paper is a physical medium that doesn’t degrade if you’re careful.

Unlike punched cards, it’s not a disaster to drop paper tape on the floor.

A 5-bit encoded perforated tape (Credit: Ricardo Ferreira de Oliveira / Wikimedia Commons)

Despite all this, as soon as it was possible, the perforated tape fell into disuse among the microns. The equipment for punching tapes was much more expensive than the reader, which was already expensive, and the data density was atrocious. Remember the 0.6MB on a 60 minute K7 tape?

A perforated tape has a density of 10 bits per inch. The same 600KB of the K7 tape, if recorded on paper, would require a tape of 12192 meters.

That doesn’t stop enthusiasts from keeping the technology alive, YouTube is full of projects to restore old gear, like this teletype on CuriousMarc, or modern, sophisticated projects using microcontrollers, like this one:

Fortunately, for those who don’t want to feel too old, you can still find original floppy disk drives, for old equipment, or with a USB connection, for newer ones.

The day they start assembling a 3½ drive by hand, then I’ll worry.

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