What to do with a dead floppy

Sony puts the last nail in the coffin, but what can be done with all those disks?

This story has been updated since its original appearance.

Every once in a while, news that a famous person has died elicits a response along the lines of: “I thought he was already dead.” That happens when someone’s been out of the public eye for so long that people had forgotten about him and just assumed he was gone. It felt kind of that way last month when Sony announced what amounts to the formal passing of the floppy disk.

Sony, which ruled of the floppy market for decades, said it will stop making the disks by March 2011, sending floppies the way of VHS tapes, eight-tracks and the gramophone. A handful of smaller manufacturers will likely continue, but Sony held 70 percent of what was already a dwindling market.

The 3.5-inch floppy disk was introduced in 1983 as a sturdy improvement over its 51/2-inch predecessor (which actually was floppy) and grew to hold 1.44M of data in its HD version. They were ubiquitous in homes and offices, used for saving, storing and transferring data, as well as for loading new programs or operating systems onto a PC (even if it took seven or eight disks to get the job done).

But their march toward obsolescence was steady, as removable – and movable – storage media moved through CDs and DVDs to USB thumb drives that can today hold up to 256G of data. Back in 1998, Apple brought out its first iMac, sans a floppy drive, and the rout was on.

Sony cited a lack of demand for its decision, which is no surprise. But that doesn’t mean there is no demand. In fact, 12 million floppy disks were sold last year. (To underscore their limits, PC World pointed out that those 12 million floppies together would hold about 17G of data, less than a single-sided Blue-ray disk.) (Editor's note: Several readers have pointed out that 12 million 1.44M floppy disks would add up to about 17T of data, not 17G. So, for purposes of comparison to newer storage technologies, let's just say that it would take about 182,044 floppies to match the capacity of a 256G USB flash drive, which currently is the largest available.)

What are people using them for? And what can you do with all the old floppies that are probably lying around in storage somewhere?

To the first question, it turns out that floppies are still in use for some computer functions. After Sony’s announcement, the BBC asked people what they did, or could do, with floppy disks. Many of the answers were creative or amusing – our personal favorite was as clays for skeet shooting – but quite a few also described real uses.

Among the answers:

  • In the aviation industry they are still used to update firmware on ticket printers. -- Dre, Germany
  • I work for a national high-street based business. We still use floppies in many sites for back-ups. Believe it or not we are still running MS-DOS on most of our till systems. We get through hundreds if not into the thousands each year. -- Matt Sparks, Birmingham
  • A huge number of CNC [computer numerical control] machines for metalworking and manufacture use floppies because their instruction sets are small enough to fit on the disks. In these areas a floppy is far hardier than a CD or even a USB pen-drive. -- Peter M, Wirral, UK
  • In the automotive industry in the U.S., many plastic parts are made in machines that are 20-30 years old. I go through floppies fairly regularly because we'll need to access a robot or punch press or milling machine or something else that has no other form of external media access. -- Kyle, Georgia
  • Believe it or not, most if not all ATM (cashpoint) programming is installed direct to the machine from a floppy disk. With all of the ATMs available in just the UK with many additional copies made to support each machine in a region... this could amount to a huge stockpile of disks hanging around for each bank and/or private ATM manufacturer. -- Steve, Northampton

But if you’re stuck with large stockpiles of floppies no longer in use, what do you do with them?

  • I put handles on them and sell them as spatulas. I sell thousands of them a year. -- Stan Russell, Squatney, Del.
  • I have a stack of old 3.5-inch floppies I keep in a box. They work perfectly for adjusting a bookshelf or the like set up on carpet. If the bookshelf tilts, I just slide floppies under the appropriate corners until it's upright. -- Greg Goebel, Loveland, Col.
  • I buy about 100,000 floppies per year as I have a business that makes them into drinks mats, fridge magnets and toast racks. -- Ken Pork, London
  • I am an artist from London and I use floppy disks to produce my paintings. I tile them up as canvases. The personal information on each disk is forever locked under the paint, but the labels are left as a clue. I use the circular hubs on the reverse for eyes! -- Nick Gentry, London

There were many other uses mentioned as well, such as ice scrapers, curtains and fashion designs. One man wanted to tile the roof of his shed with them until his wife vetoed the idea.

Elsewhere on the Web, you can find even more ideas for floppy reuse, including making them into refrigerator magnets and photo cubes or even a carrying bag.

If you don’t want to got the craft route, Discovery Communications’ Planet Green Web site also offers eight ideas fort recycling or reusing floppies. You can get more ideas from sites such as GreenDisk.com.

You, too, probably have boxes of old floppies collecting dust somewhere. Any ideas about what to do with them? Something creative? Innovative? Practical? And if anyone is still using them on the job, please let us know. Submit your suggestions in the comments box below.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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