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When Sony Kills Off Floppy Disks, What's Next to Go?


The days of physical media are numbered.

Better start getting used to moving 1.44MB of information some other way. Sony (SNE) has announced the imminent death of a near and dear friend to millions of computer users from decades past: the 3.5-inch floppy disk. Come next March, Sony -- the chief manufacturer of the disk -- will cease its run, but its limited memory will live on for ages. Anyone who's installed Windows 3.1 (MSFT), Adobe Photoshop 2.0 (ADBE), or was on America Online's (AOL) mailing list is intimately familiar with these square pieces of plastic and just how many accumulated when software grew in size.

Surprising to almost everyone, Sony hasn't stopped manufacturing the antiquated storage media since 1981 -- accounting for 70% of the floppy market in Japan, according to Martyn Williams of IDG News Service. Even more astounding is the fact that 12 million disks were sold in 2009 alone. Putting it in perspective, Williams notes that all the disks sold would total roughly 17 terabytes -- the equivalent of about 700 single-sided Blu-ray discs or nine Western Digital (WDC) My Book drives.

But for the few who still used the media, they knew the end was long overdue. Apple (AAPL) dropped support of the format back in 1998 with the release of the iMac and Dell (DELL) actually waited until 2003 to ditch the floppy drives on one of its Dimension desktops.

Currently, a 10-pack of 3.5-inch floppy disks cost about six US dollars in Tokyo, which is a glaring markup considering a 10-pack of 4.7GB DVD-Rs costs about the same stateside.

With 3.5-inchers heading to pasture, Iomega Zip Drives (EMC) long gone, and hard disks slowly giving way to solid-state, what's the next storage format to be deemed outdated, outmoded, and obsolete?

The rise of MP3s may have accounted for a steep decline in compact disc sales, but 2009 still saw the sales of 374 million discs. Even ignoring blank CD-R sales and the sheer number of CD-ROM drives still prevalent among laptops and car stereos, it doesn't appear the format will be going anywhere for the next few years -- however obsolete they are for many music fans.

Given their steady expansion in storage capacity, SD and MicroSD cards by Panasonic (PC) and SanDisk (SNDK) are still kicking around and proving their usefulness. Found in smartphones like the Motorola Droid (MOT), Nexus One (GOOG), and BlackBerry (RIMM) and digital cameras from Canon (CAJ), Kodak (EK), and Nikon, the Secure Digital format will last a long while -- as long as the storage space keeps up with the rise of free online storage and public Wi-Fi signals.

While Blu-ray won the format war with HD-DVD and was poised to push standard DVDs out of the picture, consumers have been unwilling to give up the format in droves -- contrary to expectations. And although DVD and Blu-ray disc sales were down 10% in 2009, the industry still roped in $13 billion for the year. Streaming services are booming -- Netflix (NFLX) reported an exponential rise in its Instant Streaming feature and Best Buy (BBY) announced its own streaming service last year -- but similar to CDs' longevity, we're still many years away from those optical discs being discontinued. Ignored, yes, but not discontinued.

VHS, on the other hand, probably won't be so lucky.

When the last major Hollywood production -- David Cronenberg's A History of Violence -- was released on VHS in 2006, Blockbuster (BBI), Walmart (WMT), and Target (TGT) were in the midst of downsizing and dropping their VHS inventory altogether. Today, blank tapes still remain in stores for the VCR zealots, but as the format will probably be the next to go, it's none too likely that you'll see a VHS multipack collecting dust on shelves for much longer.

It's a bittersweet moment when a long-lived media format is sent off to pasture. The 3.5-inch floppy evokes memories of playing Doom and Duke Nukem deathmatches, saving a history report in the school library, hacking your very first AOL account, and cursing DOS into the wee hours of the night. It's time for all of us to say goodbye to a digital companion of nearly three decades.

But remember, even when they're gone, the warning still stands: Don't Copy That Floppy!
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