Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obsolete, amazingly prevalent technology

I'm taking a stack of floppy disks to work today. Because I actually need floppy disks. I've got hardware, some of it brand new and of recent design, which only interfaces via floppy disk. I've got a much larger collection of hardware which requires a serial (RS232) port. I checked at Best Buy last week, and they don't sell a laptop with both a serial port and floppy drive. Not one. But lots of companies still sell gear which requires one or both. And, since we've gone Mac in the office, I no longer have a computer here that has a floppy disc or a serial port. To make this more complex, a lot of this gear isn't friendly with USB-to-serial adapters. I haven't tried an external USB floppy drive; I suspect they work fine, but I'm not sure how well they deal with surreal disk formats (my lighting controller, f'rinstance, uses a floppy formatted to something like 704k).

The other oddity is that a lot of this gear is new; it was designed when floppies were already on the way to obsolescence. I had to ask the designer of our lighting system about it -- why not use flash memory of some kind? The answer is that it's easier at the factory. A floppy drive requires no processor to run, and takes no complicated programming. A flash reader takes an actual processor and internal memory to work, and therefore makes the entire system more complicated. Still, I'm seeing a near-term market in old laptops that still have native floppies and serial ports. At the moment, it's just a minor inconvenience. But in ten years, when our architectural lighting controllers are still functioning, we'll have a serious problem finding floppy drives -- and blank disks to use in them....

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