Dell foments floppy's fall

The PC maker plans to drop the floppy as standard equipment on one of its Dimension desktops later this month.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
5 min read
The floppy drive is heading toward extinction at Dell Computer.

Later this month, the PC maker plans to drop the floppy as standard equipment on one of its Dimension desktops.

Dell, which nixed floppies as standard equipment on its Inspiron 4150 and 8250 notebooks last summer, will let customers configure one of its top-of-the-line Dimension 8250 PCs without a floppy drive by the end of this month, company representatives said.

Dell executives believe its time to head in the direction of eliminating the floppy from its consumer desktops for two reasons: Computer buyers have become more sophisticated about using their computers, and new technology such as portable USB (universal serial bus) storage devices and CD-rewritable drives have come down in price over the last few years.

The PC maker, which currently ships a floppy with every Dimension desktop, believes that the drive is no longer necessary because of the availability of better storage devices. But it plans to gently nudge customers toward that philosophy. The floppy option on 8250 PCs is the first step.

Round Rock, Texas-based Dell plans to offer its $20 USB Memory Key storage device, which holds 16MB of data, in place of the drive for the 1.44MB floppy.

The Dell USB Memory Key uses flash memory and works by plugging into a PC's USB port. When connected, the Dell-branded device appears on a computer's desktop as a removable hard drive, allowing people to drag and drop files for storage or to move them to another computer. When not in use, it fits into a shirt pocket.

Dell has yet to lock down its pricing strategy for the floppy delete, but the company is aiming to offer the USB key as a direct swap.

Company representatives added that Dell hasn't decided yet whether its Web site configuration tool will automatically include or exclude the floppy--meaning that consumers will either need to manually delete or add it.

The availability of inexpensive rewritable drives gives PC buyers another floppy alternative. Dell said most of its customers are opting to make the $40 upgrade to a CD-RW drive from a read-only drive, or a $199 upgrade to a DVD-RW drive.

Security blanket
Although the floppy may no longer be a technological necessity, Dell executives concede that it may still be important to some customers to have one--a security blanket for their PC.

"The cost, availability and features you get from alternate devices are making the floppy obsolete from a technology perspective," said David Schwarzbach, manager of product marketing for Dell's Dimension desktop line. "But there's still as psychological attachment to it. Customers aren't willing to give up on it on the whole, but research has shown people are open to alternatives."

Still, Dell is likely to eventually eliminate the floppy in all of its systems. The company is following a systematic plan to eliminate the drive as standard equipment, starting with the models that customers are the least likely to miss it on.

"We will be watching the customers' reaction to this," said Shannon Baxly, a product marketing manager for Dell Dimension. "Right now the plan is to give the customers a couple of months to get used to this."

If the floppy delete option becomes popular, Dell will move it down the line to its Dimension 4550 and 2350 desktop models and possibly their future equivalents.

Dell noted that if the hard drive fails on a no-floppy Dimension, consumers will be able to boot up using its CD drive. Dell's current Dimension desktops cannot boot from the USB Flash Memory Key. The company said it will add the ability to boot from the device in future versions of the desktop.

Before it made floppy drives optional on some Inspiron notebooks last year, it cut them as standard equipment on its Optiplex business desktops in 2001.

Its next generation of Inspiron models will offer the drives as options on all models. Some of the notebooks offer optional internal floppy drive modules, while others will use only external USB floppy drives, a source familiar with Dell's plans said.

Analysts said that although PC manufacturers have been talking about ditching the floppy for years, Dell is the first Windows-based PC maker to move toward that goal on the desktop in some time.

Floppies were thought to be threatened by the NetPC and legacy-free PC movements spawned by Compaq Computer's original iPaq desktop PC. But neither movement caught on.

Apple ahead of game
Apple Computer was the first manufacturer to actually take the plunge and eliminate the floppy completely, when it released the iMac in 1998.

Among the consumer PC makers, "no one's had enough guts to do it yet," said Steve Baker, analyst with NPD Techworld. In the past, "everybody has wanted to do it, but they said research showed people are uneasy about buying a PC that doesn't come with a floppy. There are other means to replace the floppy and give people the comfort of having a transportable data storage device."

Thus, the floppy is likely to hang around for some time.

Ultimately, "we think the usage (of floppies) will decline to such a level that an external floppy with a USB interface?that can be used for several PCs?will be acceptable," Schwarzbach said.

Other manufacturers besides Dell are moving away from the floppy as well.

Hewlett-Packard has experimented with removing the floppy from some models, such as its old ePC. It also eliminated the floppy last fall from its Presario 900 notebook line, for example, asking customers to mail in a coupon for one if they wanted it. But it hasn't done away with floppy drives for consumer desktops yet.

eMachines is evaluating a move toward an internal card reader that would allow customers to store data on a memory card instead of a floppy, a source familiar with its plans said.

eMachines is likely to offer a card reader and a floppy on its higher-priced desktops first, eventually working the reader into less expensive systems before parting with the floppy completely. Other PC makers are apt to take a similar approach.

Indeed, Schwarzbach said, "it's not as easy as it would appear because removing a component that has been incorporated for so long has an effect on the way a system is manufactured and the design of the bezel."

"Who uses the floppy disk" anymore? countered Brooks Gray, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "There are much more efficient means for transferring files from one computer to the next. As the masses migrate to optical drives, it seems like a logical move to take the floppy out of standard product offerings."