Floppy Disk Sales Are Higher-Density Than You Might Think

Floppies may be big in Japan, but nostalgic and/or needful Stateside floppy enthusiasts needn’t fret — just use AOL keyword point that browser toward floppydisk.com. There, you can buy new floppies of all sizes, both new and old, recycle your disks, or send them in to get all that precious vintage stuff transferred off of them.

That delightfully Web 1.0 site is owned by Tom Persky, who fancies himself the ‘last man standing in the floppy disk business’. Who are we to argue? By the way, Tom has owned that address since approximately 1990 — evidently that’s when a cyber-squatter offered up the domain for $1,000, and although Tom scoffed at paying so much as $1 for any URL, his wife got the checkbook out, and he has had her to thank for it ever since.

My business, which used to be 90% CD and DVD duplication, is now 90% selling blank floppy disks. It’s shocking to me. — Tom Persky

In the course of writing a book all about yours-truly’s favorite less-than-rigid medium, authors Niek Hilkmann and Thomas Walskaar sat down to talk with Tom about what it’s like to basically sell buggy whips in the age of the electric car.

Tom also owns diskduper.com, which is where he got his start with floppies — by duplicating them. In the 80s and 90s, being in this business was a bit like cranking out legal tender in the basement. As time wore on and more companies stopped selling floppies or simply went under, the focus of Tom’s company shifted away from duplication and toward sales. Whereas the business was once 90% duplication and 10% floppy sales, in 2022, those percentages have flopped places, if you will.

So Who’s Buying Floppies, Anyway?

High-density badgelife, yo. Image via Twitter

While the bulk of Tom’s revenue comes from hobbyists, who tend to want working disks, and artists, who probably prefer to use broken ones — his largest customers are the commercial ones. He estimates that about half of the world’s fleet of airliners is over 20 years old and still uses floppies in the avionics. Raise your hand if you were still using floppies in 2002. I know I was, although I also had one of those 100 MB ZIP drives at home.

Tom also cites aging medical equipment that still use floppies, industrial companies that use floppy-based cameras, and his largest customer of them all — the embroidery business. There are tends of thousands of fancy automatic thread-painting machines out there, and they were mostly made when the 3.5″ floppy disk was the height of data storage technology. That’s just how it goes.

Then there’s the hobbyists, artists, and ‘other’ category. ‘Hobbyists’ of course includes the retrocomputering crowd, which likely intersects a bit with ‘other’, which is represented by the sheer number of floppies that have been used as conference badges. Tom says he sold “a lot of disks for that, especially the recycled disks that couldn’t be reformatted.” Wanna bet?

‘Floppy Disk’: An Elegant Name for An Elegant Medium

Amalgam of original IBM floppy patents #US3668658 and #US3678481

In this excellent interview, Tom points out that while CDs and DVDs seem futuristic and slick, they are almost as easy to produce as pouring plastic into a mold. Floppies, on the other hand, have several components, around nine of which are unique.

Unlike CDs and DVDs, floppies were a special piece of technology with a complicated manufacturing process. And although older media such as vinyl and cassettes have seen a rebirth, Tom believes that floppies await no such fate.

One could argue that cassette tapes are fairly complicated as well. But consider that data centers and server farmers never really stopped with the tape backups, though they often became relegated to the fourth line of defense.

Although the tapes don’t quite look the same as the Alice In Chains EPs we wore out in middle school, the tooling and equipment to make plastic widgets containing magnetic tape that runs between two spools never went away completely. The same can’t be said of the floppy disk tooling and equipment, which Tom estimates would cost around 25 million dollars to spin up from the dead. I can see it now: Phoenix Floppies. They’ll be fire.

Are Floppies Firmly Obsolete?

While the move to rigid, uni-body plastic-circle media and then USB drives was obviously good for reasons of increased storage, looking back, it feels like a technological bait and switch — a subtle step backward disguised as forward progress. Hey you, look at this shiny new camera array while we take away the headphone jack. The problem, of course, comes when the rest of the industry adopts this type of absurdity, and then companies slowly but surely stop making headphone jacks, or some other elegant, electromechanical thing that served us just fine for decades. I don’t want to be right about this.

At 72, Tom has no plans to get out of the floppy disk business. When asked why he’s still into them today, he jokes that it’s because he forgot to get out, but it’s obvious that Tom fancies floppies more than a little bit. This is a great interview with an awesome guy who sounds just like one of us. “Me, I just like to get up in the morning, have people ask me questions, and try to solve problems.”

47 thoughts on “Floppy Disk Sales Are Higher-Density Than You Might Think

  1. Older chemical instrumentation uses floppies. The university where I taught often got donated equipment that would include a PC with floppy disks. (Dammit, what WAS that DOS command?? ;-))

  2. Floppies are AWSOME!

    I have seen my first solar eclipse thru one of them, burn my first laser kerf thru it, repaired valve with their metal slot cover, and made name etiquette on their spare adhesive sheet. Sadly never write any data on them.

      1. Floppy metal shutter had just the right thickness and elasticity to pass as check valve cover disc on diaphragm vacuum pump. Worked all 3 days perfectly, on boat panels vacuum forming, before proper repair part arrived.

        One drawback of that repair – for the rest of internship, on every adequate occasion, I was called “sucKcessful”.

    1. Sure they are awesome to use for any purpose but reliably writing and being able to retrieve that data when needed. I’ve lost countless schoolwork from disk read errors, even the backup floppies would present their gremlins at the most inopportune moments.

      Actually I think I had better luck with true floppies of the 5.25″ kind. But 3.5’s always found a way to fail me! Lets revitalize Sony’s mini disk format, those I like!

        1. 2.88mb never had a chance. I’ve seen only one disk drive capable of it while disk drives were still in widespread use. Nearly everyone had 1.44mb or Zip disks. Floptical and M.O. drives also failed to catch on.

        2. The 2.88MB weren’t HD (high density), they went by the name of ED (extended density). The NeXT workstation had an ED disk drive. ED floppies were, of course, nowhere to be found in shops, and the internet just wasn’t there yet (at least no internet shops). Mail order was possible, though. Unlike HD floppies, ED floppies came in 5-packs, IIRC. Prices were outrageous. Eventually I ended up buying lots of packs of HD floppies and punching the additional ED hole into the floppy (with a soldering iron – ugh, yes, me bad). Most “upgraded” floppies would fail during format (the format tools of that time automatically did a disk check, to check that the medium was error-free).

          The other (lower) densities were DD (double density, which is half the density of HD) and SD (single density). I doubt that I ever saw an SD floppy…which makes me feel way too young for any kind of retro-computing stuff. Yep, I’m 54 years only.

      1. I actually had a Walkman Minidisc player and felt very hipster/hacker-esq using it while I walked around campus. In retrospect I likely looked liked a doofus. 2005 to 2008 I think.

        At the time I was a “DJ” at a radio station, both at college and as a part time gig at another station in town. Both used Minidisc to record their talk shows, sermons, and commercials when they transitioned away from the mobius strip tape “carts”. It was an OLD radio station.

        Somewhere, I have a graph paper notebook full of sketches to build a minidisc juke box that would change out the discs automatically like the old school record players. Clear acrylic side panels and frame with tidy wire runs and cable management so you could see all the components. I need to dig that out and see if its any easier to implement with modern components.

        Completely useless, I know.

    2. Never written any data on them? Oh you missed out…
      I established PowerZip[1] among my peers on our schoolyard to exchange eg games (Descent 1 I think) with files that wouldn’t fit on a single floppy. PowerZip is freeware and has an automatic split functionality.
      Or borrow a Windows 95 setup CD and “build” a set of 10-20 floppies with a working copy of it (reformat to 1,6-1,7MiB DMF, copy, create boot floppy).
      Used them to install Win95 on a Toshiba laptop with ~200MiB HDD an 8MiBs of RAM…

      [1] https://web.archive.org/web/19990208015701/http://www.powerzip.lco.net/

  3. Until 2016, Ihad a floppy drive in my computers. I still have an external one, but never tried it.

    Between buying up used floppies, and some great deals on used towards the end, I’ll never run out.

      1. Because I had things on floppies. I don’t need a floppy emulator, I’m not using old computers, I can use USB flash drives or cards in my cardreader if I need removeable media.

  4. When I got a floppy drive in 1984, I was annoyed that after spending all thst money, they didn’t toss in a blank floppy. But at least I found a two pack so I could get started without spending too much more. The first time I bought a box of ten floppies, it cost me fifty dollars Canadian, I still have the bill somewhere.

    I just checked amazon, and the first page of results for “floppy disk” had a couple of boxes of ten for about $30 Canadian.

    I didn’t try generic floes for some tears, then they were everywhere.

  5. Sooooooo… I read the title wrong and got uber excited to hear of the possibility of floppies being able to hold more memory than we thought. Although, I did enjoy the story. Tom is definitely doing the world a vital service.

    1. With an LS-240 drive you can write 32 megabytes to a 1.44M floppy. But it is DAO or Disk At Once only. No random writing. Then there’s the software/driver issue. Dunno if there are drivers new enough for Windows 7 or 8-10.

    2. Sony did have a floppy disk adapter that allowed the use of Sony Memory Stick (up to 64MB) into it and then it’d work like a normal disk in Sony disk camera and on Windows system. No idea if it could support larger memory stick via Memory Stick Pro Duo (over 32GB)

  6. I do have an external USB 3.5 drive. Haven’t tried to use it in years now. Wonder if Linux can still read/write/format them …. Hmmmm. Keep a couple full boxes of 3.5s for nostalgia purposes.

    I have a large stack of the mylar disks (removed from hard cases) on my wall as I use the material for hinges on small R/C airplanes. Works great. Cut to size, rough up with a bit of sandpaper, insert into cut slits in the balsa control surfaces and hit with tiny bit of thin CA.

  7. Self contained musical instruments such as church organs age slower and those floppy slots are still there mostly as a backup organist. MIDI can be very data efficient. I’ve put in USB adapters too.

  8. How about a HaD retro tech article on why the computer industry refused to make the 2.88M floppy standard equipment? Only IBM and (IIRC) Compaq even bothered to offer a 2.88M drive as an option.

    If IBM, Compaq, HP, Dell, Gateway 2000, and Apple had all made a 2.88M drive standard on all their computers, that would have been very nice.

      1. CDs wouldn’t be leap over floppy in the sense most CDs are Write Once. Read Only. Not like R/W floppy media. The Zip drives and thumb drives would be the ‘leap’ over floppies. I seem to remember using the little thumb drives more than the floppies at the time even though the thumb drive seemed a bit problematic if you didn’t eject them properly. That I think was the floppy killer.

    1. Yeah, no kidding. When I was a kid, I had no internet at home, and if I wanted to bring any programs home I had to make sure they fit on a floppy disk. Incidentally, that’s what drove me to using cloud storage too. If it didn’t fit on a disk, I would save the file as an attachment on a draft email in my account for later retrieval at a machine with a CD burner.

      1. We were lucky enough to have an internet connection (on a single computer) at school, so I could download Amiga software from Aminet, and then write it to 720Kb floppy disks to take home. Fortunately the Amiga could read PC formatted discs, although it was limited to double density only, because the only way to read an Amiga formatted disc on a PC is via special hardware.

      1. Uh, wasn’t that “another 360kB on the other side”, giving you 720kB in total?

        Unless, of course, you did the magic trick of punching a hole which “transformed” the SS/DD into an SS/HD, which you’d then use as a DS/HD.

  9. For the longest time I’ve wanted to see the old 1.44 make a sort of comeback in the form of an SD card holder. Sd cards are great for storage density and size but I can’t tell you how many I’ve lost of the years. Never lost a floppy. Plus it would be nice to just shoot pictures and video all day, swap out cards as needed, then be able to transfer everything to the computer in one big dump, instead of having to swap cards out. 4k video will eat up a large (512+ gb) card faster than you’d think, and those suckers aren’t cheap.

    A little 3.5 sized case that can hold say… 12 micro cards or 6 regulars that I can just pop into a slot on my pc would be perfect. I’ve seen external USB card readers, but they’re relatively bulk, usually only hold 1-2 cards, plus it’s another cable to keep track of and another usb port needed, and these days even my desktop is running low on USB ports.

  10. I was at university in the 70s where a 36 bit CD (Control Data) mainframe was starting to be replaced by PDP11’s and LSI 11’s. I think the OS was 16 bit RT11.
    We took a course on “small computer systems” using LSI 11’s that had 8″ floppies. If you inserted the 256k disk upside down the fan wouldn’t separate (inflate) the layers and the extra friction would mangled the disk hub. I think the OS was 16 bit RT11.
    If you noticed the error soon enough you could still use it the right way round!

  11. This dude is really great. Bought some 5.25″ disks for my Altair and they arrived damaged and he shipped me some new ones ASAP. Provides an essential service for us all that would otherwise be an eBay disaster

  12. A few years back, the badges at the BSides DE conference were 3.5″ floppies. It turned out that each had been formatted and a single password-protected .ZIP file was on ’em. If you thought to check the disk, and you were able to crack the passwd, you got a message that told you to report it to the conference organizers to win a prize. I believe two folks actually did all that.

  13. Will never miss floppies. I used them in the 90’s, and that was a waste of time while carrying them around and at least one of a series holding a large software which went bad. So unreliable. How about no.

  14. A few users have complained about the reliability of floppies, or lack thereof. My experience was quite different. I don’t think I ever lost data to a failed 3.5-inch floppy, though I only used them during high school and my first years of college, i.e. between the mid-90s and early-2000s.

    But Iomega 100-MB Zip disks? Good lord, did I ever regret using those! I clearly remember losing nearly a week’s worth of C++ programming homework to one failing, with the Clicks of Death™. I wasn’t the only one in my class to experience that type of failure, either; we ALL hated Zip disks by the end of the semester. At least I learned the importance of backups, from then onward.

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