Demands on computer devices have pushed the floppy disk toward obsolescence, its 1.44 kilobytes of storage space too scant for today's applications and its 3.5-inch size too big for smaller innovations like digital cameras, Game Boy-size palm computers and sub-laptop PCs.
Exhibits at the COMDEX computer trade show that just ended in Las Vegas showed a race well in progress to either beat the floppy or be the next floppy.The smaller race, literally speaking, is to supply removable storage space for tiny hand-held devices and "smart" microchip-based appliances that run the gamut from toasters to telephones.
Longest on the market are PCMCIA flash memory cards first developed for laptop computers. PC cards, as they are called for short, can be found in a number of digital still cameras and hand-held computing devices. PC cards are the size of a credit card and about four times as thick for the most popular configuration.
The hottest new mini-storage device was debuted by SONY at COMDEX and is called the Memory Stick. Expected to ship early next year, the Memory Stick is flash memory made in 4-megabyte and 8-megabyte configurations one-fourth the size of a PC card.
It's a little thicker and a little shorter than a stick of gum and is expected to sell for $29.95 for the 4-MB version or $39.95 for the 8-MB version. The stick can be slid into the end of a PC card adapter to fit devices with PC card slots. A 4-MB stick with PC adapter is expected to sell for $99.95.
Utah-based Iomega is taking a different approach in its effort to capture the small digital appliance market with its new Clik! - a 40-megabyte disk that is as wide as a PC card and about two-thirds as long.
Iomega has been showing Clik! for months and selling the disks before the drives are even available. Iomega announced at COMDEX that Compaq intends to bundle Clik! Mobile drives with its C-series handheld PC. The drive would not be built-in but would be a cable-attached external drive.
Clik! drives are expected on the market around the first of the year at $199 with disks selling for about $10 each when bought in 10-packs.
Both Iomega and Sony previewed hand-held devices with their respective floppy-replacements built in.
Elsewhere at COMDEX, the marketing battle to replace the floppy with a high-capacity super floppy is in full swing with disks weighing in at anywhere from 100 megabytes to 2.2 gigabytes.
The battle is not without casualties. One of the first sights COMDEX visitors saw when they arrived at the airport in Las Vegas was their luggage going into the back of taxis with advertisements for SyQuest's Sparq drive plastered on the trunk.
SyQuest had placed the ads on almost every cab in town. But the SyQuest booth at COMDEX was vacant on the heels of news the company had stopped production and was considering bankruptcy.
Other manufacturers in the super-floppy arena are well aware of SyQest's demise but kept a poker face at COMDEX when asked whether they were glad to see the competition pared down or whether SyQuest was a dead canary in the hazardous super floppy market coal mine.
Iomega enjoys the largest share of the developing super-floppy market, with 19 million of its 100 megabyte Zip drives and 100 million Zip disks sold. The dominant market penetration has been expensive, keeping Iomega from making a profit all year.
Iomega also has 1-gigabyte and 2-gigabyte disks for its Jaz line of drives, but Zip remains the company's most-promoted product.
Iomega announced a new generation of Zip drives at COMDEX, expected to ship soon, that have a 250-megabyte capacity. Existing 100-megabyte disks will play on the new Zip drives, but the new 250 megabyte disks will not work in the existing Zip drives.
Minnesota-based Imation, a 3M spinoff, is pushing its 120-megabyte SuperDisk. Company spokesman Jason Thunstrom said Imation has sold 4 million drives, well behind the 19 million Zip drives out there, but he said the SuperDisk is well-represented in the laptop market.
A user who wants to can pile on additional drives in a desktop machine. But in laptops where space is a premium, a super floppy that is a true replacement for traditional floppy drives by being able to read existing 1.44-megabyte disks gives the company an advantage over Zip, Thunstrom said.
On Imation's heels is a Japanese consortium with a super floppy of its own that also takes traditional disks. Sony, Mitsumi and Teac have joined forces to design a 200-megabyte HiFD Disk.
Imation's disk is already on the market and the HiFD Disk won't ship until early next year, but the Japanese project has more horsepower behind it in terms of disk capacity, brand recognition and its existing global distribution channel.
The first HiFD drive to ship will be an external parallel-port drive with an expected street price of $199 with disks priced at $14.99 or $39.99 for a three pack. Internal drives will follow, said Teac spokesman Gino Colangelo.
Recordable and re-recordable CDs and even DVDs are playing into the removable storage market but more as playback devices for large video and audio files. The slow "reading" rate of optical drives makes them less attractive for downloading big files from sources like the Internet, and there are limits on the re-record ability of CD-genre disks.
Sony is demonstrating internal and external CD-ROM-looking 5.25-inch disks it says will last through 10 million rewrite cycles. Drives are currently available at a list price of $2,250 and will read existing CD-ROM disks. Disk prices weren't announced but have been as low as $1 apiece for previous generation write-once disks.
Another magnetic media prototype announced jointly by Sony and partner Fujitsu is a 1.35-gigabyte, 3.5-inch disk system. The storage space is about double that of a CD-ROM.
Saved for last is both a newcomer and a Goliath to the magnetic media market.
California-based Castlewood introduced its 2.2-gigabyte ORB drive and disks at COMDEX in a presentation that shows the company knows it needs to do a lot to build name recognition.
Founded by Seagate co-founder and former SyQuest executive Syed Iftikar, the Castlewood ORB isn't trying to double up as a drive for existing floppies. But marketing vice president Martin Fishman said the company believes its 2.2-gigabyte disks at a suggested price of $29.95 provided the biggest magnetic disks on the market at the lowest per-megabyte price. Internal drives are now available; external drives are expected to ship early next year. Suggested drive price: $199.95.
Will one or two emerge as the dominant floppy?
"I think there's room for a number of players," Colangelo said, agreeing with a number of competing executives like Fishman, who said advances in technology are too rapid for any one drive configuration to totally overtake the others at this point. The fact that Iomega leads the market with super floppies and yet had to change its flagship Zip drive to increase capacity is a case in point.