Ode to the Floppy Disk

Posted in Software at 1:23 am by

Late last month John Gruber ran a pair of articles on Daring Fireball addressing the issue of the Apple-Adobe Flash-web standards “battle” that has been playing out in blogs, open letters, websites, and device sales.

What struck me, about the second article in particular, is how much of a case of déjà vu I was having (or, for the more Galactica-minded, “all this has happened before, and all this will happen again”). I was a bit surprised that Gruber had not had the same revelation and/or had not seen fit to broadcast it on Daring Fireball.

Flash is the new floppy disk. iOS devices are the new iMacs.

For those who don’t recall, 3½″ floppy disks were (by the 1990s) the ubiquitous method of file transfer between computers. These small disks held all of 1.44 MB of data (about half the size of a single photo taken with an iPhone 4!) and most software shipped on (or, rather, spanning) multiple floppy disks well into the late 1990s. Never mind that CD-ROM drives shipped on nearly every computer at this point (or that many computers had the ability to burn recordable CDs), the Internet (the web, FTP, and email) and local area networks were available for file transfer, or that many large-capacity portable disk formats existed and were far more suitable for storing and transferring files than floppies. The floppy disk was soldiering on, performing tasks that it had never been designed for and was increasingly unsuitable to handle.

Enter the iMac. It is 1998 and Steve Jobs has made a triumphant return to Apple. The iMac dumps a whole host of legacy technologies that were unsuited for modern computing—SCSI ports, ADB (serial) ports, and, most notably, the floppy disk—in favor of new industry standards like FireWire and USB. Prior to the iMac, a computer without a floppy disk was unthinkable. Beginning with the iMac, that very inconceivable thought had been introduced, and it would eventually trigger the extinction of the ill-suited, obsolete floppy.

A decade later, Flash is one of the ubiquitous technologies on the web, competing with HTML and associated technologies as a method of displaying text, images, and video—and even running applications—on the web. Yet Flash, which originated as a development tool and associated player for web animations, has become unsuitable for many of the round-hole tasks its users have tried to force its square peg to perform. Flash is inaccessible to most of the technologies that make the web searchable, mashable, usable. On Mac OS X, Flash is the number one cause of crashes and Flash performance is atrocious. Because Flash is a plug-in, not part of the browser software used to view websites, browser vendors can’t fix bugs and crashes or make improvements to the Flash software. And if you run an operating system other than Mac OS X or Windows, there’s a chance Flash isn’t available at all, which means Flash-only or highly-Flash-dependent websites are completely unavailable or broken. However, alternatives, such as <canvas>, SVG, HTML5 <video>, and various “web applications” specifications, exist for most of the common (mis)uses of Flash on the web. Most alternatives are implemented, or in the process of being implemented, by multiple browser developers, whose products are available for a wide variety of desktop, workstation, and mobile operating systems.

Despite all of Flash’s flaws and limitations, and in spite of the collection of accessible, performant, web-compatible, and widely-available web technologies,1 a web that doesn’t require Flash remained inconceivable to many. Once again, however, Apple has turned that notion on its head. Millions of users browse the web every day on computing devices that not only don’t have Flash installed, but can’t have Flash installed. Once again, all it took was Apple “think[ing] different” and taking a stand against antiquated technologies, and a whole new world of possibilites has opened up. The unthinkable is happening.

Flash is the new floppy disk, and iOS devices are the new iMacs that will unseat Flash from its high horse and drive it into obscurity.


1 It is a bit ridiculous to refer to web technologies as being “web-compatible.” However, as noted above, certain technologies deployed on the web, such as Flash, aren’t compatible with the rest of the web—they can’t be crawled by a search engine, translated by a web translation engine, or have their source displayed by a user’s browser.


  1. User Grav­atarFelix Pleșoianu said,

    09.27.10 at 2:14 am

    “if you run an operating system other than Mac OS X or Windows…”

    Then you can run a replacement Flash player such as Gnash or SWFdec. Of course, that means you run into the lack of a H.264 codec, as well as various compatibility issues. And in the end, that’s akin to plugging an external floppy drive in the USB port of an iMac — it doesn’t really solve the problem. But what will?

    Only one thing: developers accepting that the days of Flash are gone, and migrating to newer technologies. Unfortunately, many of them have invested too much time into Flash to let go. Others may have no idea just how common and SVG implementations are nowadays — all major browsers implement them except for IE (and IE should die, but that’s another story entirely).

    As for Apple products causing the demise of this and that technology… uh… what was the market share of iMacs back in the day? What is the market share of the iPhone in a market of billions of devices? Oh please. The floppy disk died when *everybody* moved on, not when His Divine Geekiness Steve Jobs decreed. :)

    So will Flash. It takes some more time and education, that’s all.

  2. User Grav­atarHavvy said,

    09.27.10 at 3:17 am

    You have a sentence fragment: “However, alternatives, such as , SVG, HTML5 , and various “web applications” specifications.”

  3. User Grav­atarJustin Dolske said,

    09.27.10 at 5:05 am

    Inconceivable? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    The writing had been on the wall for the demise of the floppy for quite some time when the iMac shipped. And while iOS has clearly been making Adobe unhappy, Flash is still firmly entrenched in the non-mobile space. Perhaps a 1-2 punch with HTML5 video will be the key, that remains to be seen.

    Apple’s prowess here, I think, has more to do with having unique products that are in high demand. So it’s easier for them to take short-term dings from what consumers think they want.

  4. User Grav­atarTony Mechelynck said,

    09.28.10 at 1:59 am

    And if you run an operating system other than Mac OS X or Windows, there’s a chance Flash isn’t available at all, …

    Hm, I happen to run openSUSE Linux and one of my SeaMonkey plugins is called “Shockwave Flash”. In fact, your own link mentions Linux (RedHat, openSUSE and Ubuntu) and Solaris in addition to various releases of Windows and Mac OSX.

    This said, I’ve never been a fan of Flash (unlike 3½” «hard» floppies which were a huge improvement over 5¼” «soft» floppies, with reduced outward size, increased data capacity, and better reliability; and I never knew the earlier 8½” floppies which I’ve been told were even worse).

  5. User Grav­atarDJ Vue said,

    09.28.10 at 7:47 am

    For extra déjà vu you could think back to the first time that Steve Jobs commanded that floppy disks were to be dropped, when he was still at NeXT.

    Unfortunately, it was too early and the customers (correctly) revolted since the magneto-optical drive intended to replace it was a bit hit and miss. The next(!) model had a floppy drive instead.


    Even Steve Jobs has to wait for the right time when it comes to technology trends. Sometimes you skate to where you think the puck is going to be, and it turns out that it isn’t.

  6. User Grav­atarNeil Rashbrook said,

    09.28.10 at 8:51 am

    It wasn’t until 2008 that Microsoft eventually managed to drop the last necessity for floppy disks. And for me it’s still the most convenient bootable media.

  7. User Grav­atarTony Mechelynck said,

    09.28.10 at 3:56 pm

    Well, Neil, let’s face it: for better or worse, the floppy disk is now a thing of the past; but what about a bootable USB stick?

  8. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    09.29.10 at 12:35 am

    Felix: My argument is not that the iMac single-handedly killed the floppy, or that iOS devices will alone do the same thing to Flash, but rather that these Apple products were the catalysts, the first (and significant) cracks in a wall, so to speak—a wall that had perviously been viewed as crack-free and perhaps impenetrable.

    Havvy: Thanks; fixed. I think the rest of that sentence got lost when I was re-arranging the order of the technologies.

    Dolske: Maybe “inconceivable” is too strong, but I stand by that general idea. In general, people and computer manufacturers of that time did not think they’d no longer be using floppies in the near (in the iMac case) or medium-to-long term. I’ll also concede that there’s a stronger case to be made for the iMac making USB “happen,” but the analogy doesn’t work as well—in particular, I believe that HTML5 <video> is going to “happen” regardless of the fate of Flash, since browser vendors plus powerhouse video sites like YouTube and Vimeo are already pushing (and deploying) HTML5 <video>.

    Tony: Sure, Adobe makes Flash Player for three flavors of Linux and one flavor of UNIX. What if you use Debian or Slackware or Gentoo or…. How about AIX, HP-UX, or even BeOS/Haiku or OS/2? Gecko supports most if not all of those OSes, and so users on those OSes can use the real web even though they can’t access Flash-based content.

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