Good Idea/Bad Idea

Good Idea/Bad Idea Looks at Disk Format Confusion

Dan Knight - 2002.11.21

Back in the late 1970s, CP/M became the dominant standard for personal computer in business - and it nearly killed itself with any number of incompatible floppy disk formats. Then came the IBM PC with a single floppy disk standard, making CP/M irrelevant.

Today Good Idea/Bad Idea looks at what happens when there are too many disk formats.

Good Idea

Use readily available 8" floppies, then 5.25" floppies, and later 3.5" floppies. Start out single-sided, and go double-sided when technology permits. Increase storage density as media improves.

Success: CP/M supported both 8" and 5.25" floppies - and it worked for a while.

Success: The original IBM PC supported 160 KB on a single-sided 5.25" floppy, later moved to 180 KB, later went double sided, later went to a 1.2 MB high density format, later went to 720 KB and 1.4 MB 3.5" floppies.

Success: The Macintosh went from single-sided 400 KB 3.5" disks to 800 KB and later 1.4 MB.

Success: SyQuest became the dominant removable media with a standard 44 MB cartridge, latter leveraging this with the successful release of a backward compatible 88 MB system.

Bad Idea

Confusing the market by offering too many options.

Failure: CP/M nearly died a premature death due to so many competing disk formats. Kaypro came to the rescue with a utility that could read all 5.25" formats, but then IBM came along and made it a moot point.

Failure: Seeing the logical next step in miniaturization, Zenith adopts the 2" floppy in it's very compact minisPort laptop. Not only was the 2" floppy incompatible with anything else, it was preposterously expensive.

Failure: Seeing the logical next step in disk capacity, IBM promotes the 2.8 MB 3.5" floppy - and nobody is interested. IBM ended up using their surplus 2.8 MB floppy drives in a series of line printers.

Failure: Seeing the need for an even higher capacity 3.5" floppy, Insite created the 20 MB floptical drive, which was also backwards compatible with regular floppies. Iomega made them, too. It never had much impact - not unlike the later 120 MB SuperDisk 3.5" floppy format.

Failure: SyQuest tries to leverage their success with the 44 MB and 88 MB cartridge with a 200 MB SyQuest cartridge. Graphics houses that have just recently adopted the 88 MB standard are not amused.

Failure: SyQuest tries to leverage their name with two mutually incompatible 3.5" removable media drives, each with two or more different formats, followed by the 1.5 GB capacity SyJet cartridge. Too little too late, SyQuest is history.

Failure in the making: Iomega's Zip! drive took off like a bat out of hell with 100 MB storage capacity, affordable drives, and inexpensive media. It became the floppy of the late 1990s and destroyed the low-end SyQuest market. Then they introduced a 250 MB drive that was very, very slow with 100 MB cartridges. And now they further confuse matters with a new 750 MB system.


My theory is that a third capacity dooms a format. 5.25" floppies were fine at two capacities, as were 3.5" disks. SyQuest did okay until they pushed a 200 MB cartridge, and Iomega seems to be making the same mistake with Zip.

This would also help explain the ongoing failure to thrive of MO (magneto-optical) drives despite vast improvements in capacity and speed.

This could bode well for a higher capacity CD format, such as the 2 GB one Panasonic has been floating. However, success of a higher capacity CD depends on their being a single standard; dilution will kill both alternatives. LEPC

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