Last man standing in the floppy disk business

Tom Persky is the time-honored founder of floppydisk.com, a US-based company dedicated to the selling and recycling of floppy disks.

How many floppy disks do you have in stock at the moment?

Not as many as I'd like, something in the order of half a million. We carry all the different flavors: 3.5-inch, 5.25-inch, 8-inch, and some rather rare diskettes. Another thing that happened organically was the start of our floppy disk recycling service. We give people the opportunity to send us floppy disks and we recycle them, rather than put them into a landfill. The sheer volume of floppy disks we get in has really surprised me, it's sometimes a 1,000 disks a day. [...]

Are there still any companies left that produce them?

I would say my last buy from a manufacturer was about ten or twelve years ago. Back then I made the decision to buy a large quantity, a couple of million disks, and we've basically been living off of that inventory ever since. [...]

Who are your main customers at the moment?

The customers that are the easiest to provide for are the hobbyists -- people who want to buy ten, 20, or maybe 50 floppy disks. However, my biggest customers -- and the place where most of the money comes from -- are the industrial users. These are people who use floppy disks as a way to get information in and out of a machine. Imagine it's 1990, and you're building a big industrial machine of one kind or another. You design it to last 50 years and you'd want to use the best technology available. At the time this was a 3.5-inch floppy disk. 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 some of the avionics. That's a huge consumer. There's also medical equipment, which requires floppy disks to get the information in and out of medical devices. The biggest customer of all is probably the embroidery business though. Thousands and thousands of machines that use floppy disks were made for this, and they still use these.

If there is still a demand for floppy disks in the industrial world, why would the manufacturers stop producing them?

People tend to think about floppy disks in the same way as CDs and DVDs. To produce these, you only have to pour plastic in one end of a large machine, and you're getting CDs or DVDs out at the other end. Even though this might already look like a complex process, it's nothing compared to the manufacturing of a floppy disk. A floppy disk has perhaps nine unique components. There's the plastic moulding, the cookie, a shutter, a spring, etc. [...] The amount of effort it would take to recreate a manufacturing line for all of the pieces that go into a floppy would be virtually impossible. [...] People have been living off of inventory for five or ten years now. [...]

When you think about a manufacturing process that's getting to the end of its life, you have to consider that the testing equipment falls out of calibration. [...] In the end the quality was so bad that people didn't even test the disks anymore. Rather, they just tried to format the disk and if it didn't work, they knew it was bad. They started spitting out as many disks as possible to burn through the remaining stock.

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13 Responses:

  1. CSL3 says:
    3

    No joke: I've spent the last hour hoping you'd seen that article.

    Coincidentally, I recently found a dozen old 3.5" floppies in a file cabinet and honestly thought, "I wish I'd found these last year. No idea what's on 'em, but they'd have been perfect to send in ahead of Cyberdelia."

    • jwz says:
      5

      If you have floppies, please send them! I will absolutely put them to good use the next time we do a Cyberdelia, whenever that is...

    • jwz says:
      8

      Also, I did buy floppies from this fellow for the last one... The non-writable ones are very reasonably priced.

  2. david konerding says:
    2

    I had to buy some floppies after I bought a used Apple IIe on ebay.  Unfortunately either the drives or the floppies were bad.  Fortunately, there is a hardware dongle made by some random person on the internet that pretends to be a floppy disk using image files on an SD card.  Naturally, this dongle is many times more powerful than the computer it feeds ("what is my purpose...").  I was amused to learn that noise the drive madee when it started up is actually stepper motors slamming the read head against metal.

  3. Dave says:
    2

    I still have a couple big boxes of floppies to send your way jwz

  4. Gordon says:

    In the transition period off floppies I thought it'd be nice if you could get something that plugged straight into an FDD header and basically pretended to be a floppy drive containing a floppy that had the necessary code to chain to a CD boot loader.
    The same idea could be extended to a card reader that plugs into a FDD header and pretends to be a floppy drive.
    For 90's stuff I'd bet if you pop the cover off most things will be using standard headers inside.

    • tb says:
      2

      You can get exactly that, just search for "gotek" ...

      • jwz says:
        3

        Another market (small, but probably significant) for both floppy disks and for SD-card floppy drive interface replacements, is analog synthesizer fetishists. Lots of bands, even young ones, want their vintage gear to still work and much of that gear from the 80s and 90s used floppies.

        • Carlos says:

          I remember at the instrument shop I used to haunt, they had a really futuristic (for the early 80s...) synthesizer that was featured prominently and was usually on a demo loop.  It used an oddball three-inch floppy disk.

          The synthesizer was fantastic.  But I wouldn't want to be in the position of trying to find working disks - or worse, a working drive mechanism - to keep it going.  Maybe you'd be lucky and it would still have a Shugart-style interface so you could use one of the modern SD adapters -- but I wouldn't want to bet on it.

          C.

          • Nick Lamb says:
            2

            There are several 3 inch "floppy" disk types, I would expect this guy could tell you if have one and need more of them what type it is and whether they've got any.

            I believe the most popular was CF-2 s a type used for Amstrad's CP/M capable line of computers in the UK, for some high end Spectrums, and even some Sega products. But there are definitely customer specified designs, which you can imagine some synth maker picking for their exciting new product. The magnetic disks inside those are identical, but the plastic shell would vary, so if there aren't any of them left you'll be better off reverse engineering the drive electronics to do the SD card trick.

  5. Eric says:

    As long as the military relies on old tech like this I'd rather smash it and trash it.

    • 4

      Wait until you learn about steel.  And wood.  And batteries.  And computers.  And just about everything.  

    • Jonny says:
      1

      You are going to trash anything that the military probably won't, but might hypothetically try and recycle?  That's, uh, some pretty hardcore pacifism.  

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