Storage Media Forgotten

These days, cheap removable storage is no problem. USB sticks are virtually free at moderate capacity and not unreasonable, even at relatively large sizes. They are rugged, work across platforms, and don’t require any exotic interfaces. But this hasn’t always been the case.  In the 1990s, people wanted to store too much data for floppies, but weren’t willing to shell out for removable hard drives or tapes. Many companies identified this opportunity with, perhaps, the most successful being Iomega with the Zip drive. But there were others, including the Avatar Shark that [This Does Not Compute] remembers in a video you can see below.

Haven’t heard of the Shark? We had not either, but reviewers seemed to like it. The drive would fit in your pocket if you had a fairly large pocket. The 250 MB cartridge was smaller (but thicker) than a 3.5-inch floppy. It performed ok and connected to the parallel port which was common in those days.

The disks cost about $40, and the drive listed for $300 and was eventually available for around $200. You’d think these would sell, but according to the video, they didn’t sell well at all. Why? Part of it was a lack of brand recognition for the relatively new company, Avatar. In their early days, they targeted PC makers, not end-users. Another reason is that the rotating drives were not very robust for a portable device. In particular, transporting the portable drive with a disk in it was likely to result in data loss.

Another reason for consumer indifference was price. The price per megabyte was actually competitive. But lower-capacity disks were still large by consumer standards and cost less to buy. The lower-capacity drives were also cheaper. For example, the popular Zip drive was about $150, with disks about $15 or so. Sure, they held less than half, but 100 MB was a lot of storage in the 1990s.

Times sure have changed. While Zip drives are a distant memory for most, some classic Mac users prize the SCSI versions. It wasn’t that long ago that people were storing data on drums with 200 strips of film inside.

24 thoughts on “Storage Media Forgotten

  1. I worked an AM/FM radio station in high school and college, and I think we had every kind of audio and data storage medium ever invented going back to single track vinyl records, 8-tracks, and 7 ½ “ reel-to-reel tape recorders. We even had one track mobius strip “carts” we used for local commercials that would play on continuous loops. The newest thing there was a minidisk recorder-player the radio evangelists would record their 4-hour sermons for us to play between 2300 and 0300. Wouldn’t be surprise if there was a Shark Drive hiding somewhere in the booth and I just never saw it.

    The office computer had a peripheral to play and or write to all of them, though I think some of the connections were just hotwired two channel audio connection going through a switch box. Whole place was a fire waiting to happen.

    When the super disk floppy showed up, you’d have thought it was manna from heaven by the way our engineer reacted. Never mind the fact that USB thumb-drives were gaining traction faster than anything else.

    As nice as USB drives are, I fully admit that I miss mini disks.

    1. If Sony hadn’t had their head up their… you know… when it comes to licensing their technology to other companies, the MiniDisc would have easily won the format war.

      MD data scaled from 140 MB to 650 MB from 1993 to 1997 and then up to 1 GB so it would have competed with CD-R easily. It’s just that Sony made it incompatible with the music version because they wanted to sell albums on MD and prevent copying, and only wanted to use the data disc format on their own products, so nobody ever used it for anything.

    2. I remember a cartridge based system in the 80s that used an MFM drive with a removable 10 Megabyte cartridge system. It was a half-height 5.25 drive with plastic cartridges that were self contained. Of course MFM didn’t support hot swap so you had to reboot to change the disk at the time it was pretty cool. I think the system was manufactured in 81 or so and I used it, as a teen, in the late 80s.

      Some friends and I bought over 100 used cartridges for about 10 cents a meg when hard drives were still about $10 a meg. We were super nerdy over the fact that we had over a gigabyte of hard drive space even if it was 10 Megabytes at a time. In comparison just a year or so before the WD ST251-1 40 Meg drive cost about $800 if I recall correctly.

      Fun times.

    1. I still have a SCSI MO drive in a box somewhere, along with some discs that I should probably copy before they die (fortunately, I also still have my prehistoric Power Macintosh 9600 that the drive worked with). And, I have a pretty big pile of unused MO discs that I traveled all the way to Akihabara (from Honolulu) to buy. Ah, the good ol’ days!

  2. And don’t forget the iomega Jaz drive, where data would go to die and the scsi cables were as big around as hotdogs. And the need for terminators. Or the SyQuest drives, where data would ALSO go to die. Or unfortunately, the entire spindles of DVD-R and CD-R that you’d buy that seemed so cheap until they were unreadable a year later after being stored in a cool dark place, untouched, or the weird thing where you’d have to write on the CD-R with the sharpie BEFORE you wrote it or else it wouldn’t work after, OR the dreaded buffer underrun. The 90s and early 2000s were dark times.

      1. I loved DVD Ram! But then I had the Panasonic DVD Ram recorder that could use it. And it worked really well. However other people bought it didn’t know what to do with it. Or they didn’t have the right machine, so flop…..

      2. All of our different labs on campus had competing storage drives.
        We had pretty much everything.

        We would be in a lab without zips as most people adopted those personally, and have to shuttle over our tiny network storage allowance to get to a zip lab to export.
        We ended up bringing our own parallel zip drives in and doing a boot disc to install the drivers for 3.11 to use them.
        We had zips in nt4 workstations but it was 50:50 if on a disk swap it would remember the file table of the last disc and kill the new one. An annoying bug to say the least.

        Parallel ones were also pretty OS agnostic in the days of laplink cables which helped when dial up was the fastest connection you got outside campus.

    1. I had a bunch of those Syquest EZ 135MB disks, and two drives so I had a huge sneakernet setup (for the time). I never had any problem with those disks, compared to Zip drives which failed if you so much as looked at them cross-eyed.

      I also have about 75% of a cheap-ass box of blank CDR’s sitting unused on my shelf. (I think it was 250 disks; IIRC I think I paid like $25 for it at Best Buy. ) I DO still have a USB CD-rom/DVD/DVD-R drive, and I think a Blue-Ray drive in a dead enclosure.

  3. I had one of these. And a ton of the disks. But at some point, the drive would start destroying every disk inserted in it, never to be read again. It, too, featured a click of death.

    Loved the drive until it would stop working, which was absolutely guaranteed.

  4. I still have 2 drives and several discs. I got them at the Exchange on Okinawa around 1996/97. I can’t imagine what I have stored on them. Probably scanned photos I paid an arm and legs to get developed.

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