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posted by janrinok on Thursday September 22, @09:17AM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]

The last man selling floppy disks says he still receives orders from airlines:

Do you remember floppy disks? The archaic storage device used to ruled computers of the 1980s and 1990s, but a good number of you reading this may have never seen or used one before. Surprisingly though, they still hold a place in one specific and unlikely setting: airlines.

Long before the days of SSDs, USB drives, or even CD and DVDs, floppy disks used to rule the computer world. There's a high chance that you haven't used a floppy in a decade or two, if ever. The legacy medium was eventually replaced by newer and better technology until it simply fell into a state of complete extinction -- or so we thought.

Tom Persky, founder of floppydisk.com, doesn't agree with the idea that floppy disks are "useless" or "extinct." Tom regularly repairs, recycles, and sells floppy disks to anyone who may want their hands on the old technology. The site even has that old retro feel of old websites from the 1990s and early 2000s, as shown below.

[...] Workers in the medical field are also common visitors, as some devices used on patients still use floppy disks to this day, over 50 years after their invention. There's also people, whom he calls "hobbyists," who flock to the site to "buy 10, 20, or maybe 50 floppy disks." These groups of customers are certainly interesting, but Tom emphasizes one workplace that constantly purchases new floppy disks: airlines.

Airlines have a high demand for floppy disks, and they serve as a significant portion of Persky's sales through floppydisk.com. "Take the airline industry for example. Probably half of the air fleet in the world today is more than 20 years old and still uses floppy disks in the avionics. That's a huge consumer." To put that in context, in 2020, the total number of planes in the US commercial aircraft fleet was 7,690, and that number has likely grown since Aeroweb posted those numbers.


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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by looorg on Thursday September 22, @10:53AM (8 children)

    by looorg (578) on Thursday September 22, @10:53AM (#1272965)

    It's not that they are useless or extinct. It's just that they can't really contain any usable amount of data these days. Most floppies and formats are less then a megabyte of data, or peaking at around 1.44Mb. Unless you wrote your own format that could squeeze out a bit more, I guess if you are building your own equipment you don't have to keep to standards -- you are or set the standard. But you can still put a decent amount of normal text files or data on them without any modern formatting, no problem.

    But take a picture with your phone, those will be several megabytes large so they are out. Put some music on them? That is out to unless it's some old tracker like format music. The list goes on ...

    Airlines and Medical equipment. Is it flight data or flight paths they are going to take that is on there? So basically a lot of coordinates that get read into some machine to plot the course. Medical data has to be text, it can't be like MRI images or anything as then you would be promoted to "insert floppy #4" etc during the process. I guess it's just a bunch of test values or points that get written in there from the machines. Can't say I have seen any medical equipment lately that had floppies in them.

    I just assume you don't want to compress your data first if you are an airline or medical device user. Even if you did that might not work to great, take a lot of extra time etc.

    Is there a reason they just don't build a device that converts say the floppy drive to take input from a USB stick or something? I guess there is some kind of re-certification of the device then and it would cost a fortune etc. Can't hobbyist it to much and retain insurance etc.

    Hobbyist. If you are a real 8-bit or 16-bit fan you by now should have gotten some kind of other solution such as SD-cards or something (sd2ide, sd2iec, bluescsi, scsi2sd ...). Where you can basically store every single program ever written for one of those platforms on a single card. I love the old machines. But I don't have fond floppy memories. They are slow and horrible in that regard. There are still thousands of floppies about here in boxes. That said they are plastic so I just assume a lot of them are useless by now as they get brittle with age. I don't even know why I keep them, it's not like I'm using them for anything. But a lot of them have cool scene related art on them etc so they are for nostalgia I guess. Memories of a misspent youth.

    But if hobbyists can build them and solder some together I guess there should be at least a market for some maintenance buy or something for the medical industrial complex or the airlines to solder one together and try it. That said looking at his prices it's not really going to save any money on the floppy bill.

    I do wonder where he (floppydisk.com) gets his floppies from or did he just buy bulk and put in storage for the future? Some are still made I would assume in small quantities; at least the 3.5":ers but do they still make 5.25":s and 8"? Is there even new stock or are those all recycled? As in buy lots of them from ebay or other auctions etc and reformat and test them so they don't have any read/write errors or have succumb to mold etc.

    ... Pepperidge farm remembers.

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by SomeGuy on Thursday September 22, @12:17PM (1 child)

      by SomeGuy (5632) on Thursday September 22, @12:17PM (#1272970)

      There was a previous article (perhaps soylentnews didn't run it) that talked about how this guy got stock from his former duplicator business as well as massive old stock purchases.

      https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/we-spoke-with-the-last-person-standing-in-the-floppy-disk-business/ [aiga.org]

      As far as I know, nobody is making new floppy disks. The hard part is the magnetic cookie formula and cookie manufacturing process.

      Keep in mind that you can't always just tack on a third party storage option. Doing so might put highly certified equipment in a non-certified state, and re-certifying costs piles of money that no one wants to spend. Especially where security is concerned. Those Chinese chips might be fine for hobbiests , but do you really want those running in a secure environment? Proprietary custom electronics may not even have a way to fit such devices.

      At the moment, quality brand well stored floppy disks are still usually perfectly readable. The problem is nobody ever stores stuff properly. Floppy disks stored in a garage or attic attract smoke or pollution residue to the surface of the magnetic cookie. In cold weather condensation can form on the cookie surface and leave behind massive amounts of residue. Put those in to a drive as-is and they will rip themselves up and possibly foul your drive. These days you always have to visually inspect the disk surface before plopping a random unknown disk in to a drive. I've gotten good at cleaning poorly stored disks, but it is very tricky. (Hint - avoid Isopropyl alcohol, that can make things worse)

      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by looorg on Thursday September 22, @02:21PM

        by looorg (578) on Thursday September 22, @02:21PM (#1272986)

        As noted it's the same guy/company in both articles. From the image in the one you list I assume those boxes in the back there are just stocked with floppies. The machines on the desk behind him and to the left and right are probably duplicators and/or for recycle/reformat/test floppies. According to the article he still has about half a million "new" floppies around. The rest is recycled then and the occasional surplus or warehouse treasure find. Still he is starting to look a bit old, or 72. I guess there will "soon" be room for a new younger Mr. Floppy. After all it just won't go away anytime soon.

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Nuke on Thursday September 22, @12:27PM (1 child)

      by Nuke (3162) on Thursday September 22, @12:27PM (#1272973)

      Most floppies and formats are less then a megabyte of data, or peaking at around 1.44Mb.

      Towards the end of the floppy disk era there were 2.88 Mb floppies in the standard 3.5" evevelope. The drives for them could also read and write 1.44 Mb and 720 Kb formats, but had "2.88" engraved on the eject button. I never used any, but they were described as "too little, too late". 2.88 Mb floppies were overtaken by proprietory "super-floppies" like the Iomega Zip drive, but they in turn were put out of business by CD-ROMs which were cheap, and by that time removable disks of any sort were almost entirely used for supplying software and archiving, and only needed a write-once capability.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by Freeman on Thursday September 22, @02:05PM

        by Freeman (732) on Thursday September 22, @02:05PM (#1272982) Journal

        It's either mb or MB, Mb implies megabit, when it's actually Megabyte. Unlike your internet provider that tries to make their speeds seem faster by using Megabit terminology. Storage is calculated in bytes. Yes, 1 byte = 8 bits, but the average person doesn't know this. The smallest amount of storage you can effectively use is 1 byte. Not 1 bit. Even your ISP handles your data by byte, not bit. Which just makes it more stupid.

        --
        Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
    • (Score: 2) by agr on Thursday September 22, @02:29PM (2 children)

      by agr (7134) Subscriber Badge on Thursday September 22, @02:29PM (#1272987)

      A company called GoTek makes an inexpensive floppy emulator drive that takes USB sticks. It was mentioned in the /. story a few days ago.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by looorg on Thursday September 22, @03:20PM (1 child)

        by looorg (578) on Thursday September 22, @03:20PM (#1272999)

        Those have been around for several years now. I have one that I put in an external case. They are pretty good, lots of little mod options to put various displays and knobs and so on to do various things.

        https://www.gotekemulator.com/ [gotekemulator.com]
        https://hxc2001.com/ [hxc2001.com] (an alternative that you can build yourself if you know how to solder and order pcb:s)
        https://github.com/keirf/flashfloppy/wiki/ [github.com]

        But to connect this to the main story. A Gotek drive for example just slots into the floppy bay and connects to the machine using the same cables and ports. So I don't see why they wouldn't do that if they just use a standard floppy in their medical equipment etc. If it wasn't for various certifications and insurance things etc.

        • (Score: 4, Informative) by choose another one on Friday September 23, @08:01AM

          by choose another one (515) Subscriber Badge on Friday September 23, @08:01AM (#1273117)

          So I don't see why they wouldn't do that if they just use a standard floppy in their medical equipment etc. If it wasn't for various certifications and insurance things etc.

          [my bold] Bingo we have a winner...

          Floppies, IIRC, are used in aviation for uploading/installing software updates onto aircraft systems.

          Bear in mind the service life of a commercial aircraft is >30yrs and they are designed years before that and have a manufacturing-run in decades as well... people are still flying aircraft that were designed and certified in the early 80s. Heck, Boeing is still building 737s where major parts of the a/c were designed and certified in 1950s/60s.

          Capacity of the floppies is not an issue because they are updating systems from the same era, so the capacity of the systems is similarly limited (which can be a severe constraint if you want to change things in software - Boeing ran into major problems when they had to implement the 737-MAX software kludge properly rather than half-arsed-unsafe).

          Avionics software is kinda safety/mission critical, just a bit, producing a new hardware solution for the upload might be almost trivial, producing and certifying it might well cost in the 10s of millions or even more. Hence if there is/was a certified non-floppy upgrade available at all it might well have a unit price tag in six or seven figures... which means that actual replacement floppies become really quite valuable.

    • (Score: 2) by VLM on Friday September 23, @12:48PM

      by VLM (445) Subscriber Badge on Friday September 23, @12:48PM (#1273153)

      Is it flight data or flight paths they are going to take that is on there?

      According to my pilot buddy its nav data, think of aviation plates for each registered airport. Nothing changes very often, but its rather important to keep up to date that runway 10 was paved over last year or whatever. Obviously you use "real" tools for flight planning but in an emergency you hit the "find nearest rwy longer than 8kft or whatever" and it better not have out of date info.

      Note that "airplanes" don't use floppy disks, type accepted avionics devices use them. It costs a lot more and takes a lot longer, but you can replace a GPS unit in an airplane with a new one much like you'd swap out a car radio.

      Its just a question of money; is it cheaper to buy a $30K avionics GPS or $20 of floppies and replace the unit next year or next decade? The old one is approved and tested and guaranteed to work, it just is annoying to use floppies.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by inertnet on Thursday September 22, @11:33AM (8 children)

    by inertnet (4071) Subscriber Badge on Thursday September 22, @11:33AM (#1272966) Journal

    I just traveled on an international flight (that's why you haven't seen me here these last 2 weeks) and during on-boarding I could hear that they're still printing out passenger lists with dot matrix printers. So there must be a supplier selling a lot of those printers, ink cartridges and chain paper to airlines as well.

    • (Score: 5, Informative) by Mojibake Tengu on Thursday September 22, @12:00PM (3 children)

      by Mojibake Tengu (8598) Subscriber Badge on Thursday September 22, @12:00PM (#1272967) Journal

      Dot matrix printer is the only modern option (above daisy wheel printer and drum printer) when you absolutely need to print on forms or tickets with multiple identical carbon copies, which is compulsory for airlines for security reasons.

      Just printing multiple "same" pages on a laser printer like banks do currently is a common recipe for deception.

      --
      The edge of 太玄 cannot be defined, for it is beyond every aspect of design
      • (Score: 3, Funny) by RamiK on Thursday September 22, @12:18PM (2 children)

        by RamiK (1813) on Thursday September 22, @12:18PM (#1272971)

        Inkjets have issues with high altitudes so I wouldn't be surprised if that ear popping pressure changes during climb and descents damage their components.

        --
        compiling...
        • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Thursday September 22, @02:08PM (1 child)

          by Freeman (732) on Thursday September 22, @02:08PM (#1272983) Journal

          They use the dot-matrix printers at the ticket counter. Not on the airplane.

          --
          Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
    • (Score: 2) by EvilSS on Thursday September 22, @01:32PM (3 children)

      by EvilSS (1456) Subscriber Badge on Thursday September 22, @01:32PM (#1272981)
      There are still a few companies making them. Oki Data is/was the biggest but they pulled out of the north and south American markets in 2021. Citizen and Epson also still make them. Too many businesses still rely on multipart forms for them to go away completely. You still see them in a lot of auto shops, for example. I've been tempted to grab one just for the nostalgia but they are not cheap these days if you want a new one you will be able to get new ribbons for.
      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by lentilla on Friday September 23, @01:40AM (2 children)

        by lentilla (1770) on Friday September 23, @01:40AM (#1273074)

        What I'd love is a printer that could print out one single line of text. Nothing fancy, just ASCII in a clear monospaced font. So many times I want to get a quick hardcopy of something (system credentials to put in my wallet, a shopping list, URLs, etc). Wouldn't it be nice to send that to the printer, advance the platen an inch, neatly tear off the strip of paper and put that in your pocket and get on with your day?

        You know that technology is not where we imagined it when you find yourself copying an eighty-character encoded string by hand on to a piece of paper. Or when you are fighting with a form and think "thirty years ago I would have popped this into a typewriter and I'd be finished already".

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