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Floppy Disks Are Next To Emerge From The Techno-Dark Ages

Computers for the rest of us.

You know the story - every year computers get faster chips, better displays, bigger hard drives. But there's one piece of this techno-evolution that's still back in the Dark Ages: the floppy disk.

That little plastic tile still works as slowly, still holds the same 1.44 megabytes of data that it always did. Sure, it replaced a 720-kilobyte version and the old 5-1/4-inch floppy, but that was an Ice Age ago. Many computer users yearn for something bigger.

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They'll get their wish. At least five floppy-disk replacements are already on store shelves or in the works from the likes of Iomega, Sony, a small Colorado company called C-Labs (a partnership between Swan and Mitsumi) and a consortium making something called the LS120 or SuperDisk.

These high-capacity disks pack at least 70 times as much data as the traditional floppy disk holds. Some users will want to switch immediately.

"The high-capacity floppies are really good for some project-oriented work," says Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., research firm specializing in data storage. If you're doing desktop publishing, you probably already use some kind of high-capacity removable disk. Consumers who use computers to hold their digital snapshots and video will appreciate the extra space. Mr. Porter estimates that 1 in 5 users will have them by 2000.

But low-capacity floppies are so entrenched they won't fade away soon. The contenders "haven't driven the existing floppy drives off the market and certainly this century they're not going to and probably well into the next century" they won't, Porter adds.

Of the five would-be replacements, the one with the most potential is Iomega's Zip drive.

Some 70 times bigger and considerably faster than the floppy, Zip disks are a favorite of graphics designers and others who work with large files. Iomega has sold more Zip drives - 10 million during the past couple of years - than all the other high-capacity floppies combined.

That's still peanuts compared with the 95 million traditional floppy drives the industry expects to sell this year. But if you have to choose an heir apparent, the Zip is it. Its lead in sales is crucial because the more drives a manufacturer can make, the cheaper it can sell them. That's why a new Zip drive can be had for $130 at retail, with a 3-pack of Zip disks retailing for $50.

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"People aren't seeing the need for a [traditional] floppy anymore," says Paul Charles, president of CNF Inc., "especially people who are on the go. This [Zip drive] may be the new standard."

His Morgan Hill, Calif., company has just begun selling Zip drives for popular notebook computers.

The main drawback to the Zip is that it can't read traditional floppy disks, whereas several of its competitors can. The one that's already out on the market is the LS120, made by three manufacturers who have persuaded Compaq, Gateway, Siemens, and other computer manufacturers to include them as an option on their desktop computers.

LS120 disks can hold slightly more data than the Zip can - 120 megabytes vs. 100 megabytes.

After a rebate, the LS120 drive and the disks cost the same as Zip drives. And, most important, they read the traditional 1.44-megabyte and even the older 720-kilobyte floppies - something that can be important for notebook computers, which can handle only one drive at a time.

The other high-capacity drives aren't out yet, but the competition is heating up to bring the floppy disk into the modern era.

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