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New floppy drive announced

Sony and Fuji Photo Film are developing a floppy disk drive that can store up to 200MB of data while retaining the ability to read current 3.5-inch floppy disks.

Sony and Fuji Photo Film announced today they are developing a new floppy disk drive that can store up to 200MB of data while retaining the ability to read current 3.5-inch floppy disks.

Sony is positioning the new drives as possible replacements for the standard 1.44MB floppy drives and also as products that will offer higher performance and storage capacity than either Zip drives from Iomega or LS-120 drives from companies such as O.R. Technology, which also covet the slot reserved for today's floppy drives.

HiFD drives, as Sony is calling them, would store 200MB of information, compared to 100MB for Zip drives and 120MB for LS-120 drives. The drives would also permit data transfer rates of 3.6MB/sec, compared to 1.4MB/sec for Zip drives and around .6MB/sec for LS-120 drives. Higher data transfer rates mean files get copied from one source to another more quickly, for example. Also, Zip drives are not backward compatible with current 3.5-inch drives, while LS-120 and HiFD drives are.

The new drives are expected to be available by spring of 1998 from a number of different drive manufacturers, according to Sony.

But it will take more than increased performance and storage to make the new drives a success--more than a little bit of luck may be needed as well.

"They are looking to do something that's a pretty tall order. Sony is probably as well positioned to do well as anybody else, though," says Ken Weilerstein, an analyst with research firm DataPro.

Two main problems face companies trying to push a floppy drive replacement, according to Weilerstein. First, "The industry has been and remains very price-sensitive relative to bundling in anything that will vastly increase [system] price," he says. Initially, the HiFD drives will be more expensive than comparable floppy drives, although Sony said it expects "aftermarket" drives to be price competitive with Iomega's Zip drives.

The other problem is history. Weilerstein says that when the 3.5-inch floppy became a standard years ago, there were only two companies of significance in the PC industry--Apple and IBM. After these two companies adopted the drives, everyone else followed.

Getting companies today to adopt new technology standards is much more complicated because there are a greater number of large PC vendors, none of whom can force a new standard on their own. Compaq, for one, has tried to get the industry to adopt LS-120 drives but has not yet met with success.

"We want a strong aftermarket and licensing presence. We have to be successful at both sides of game," says Dirk Peters, national marketing manager for Value Added Products at Sony Electronics. "Anybody who wants to licence the technology, they can come to Sony. That's important because storage peripherals can be much more successful if you license it out to everyone else who wants to participate," Peters says.

Sony will face tough competition even in the aftermarket for storage peripherals, where users are mainly buying drives for personal storage. Iomega claims it has sold nearly 8 million Zip drives since 1995, in part due to an effective marketing campaign that taught people the value of backup storage devices. Iomega now has drives priced as low as $150 and has drives for notebook computers as well.

Weilerstein notes that CD-RW (recordable, rewritable) drives may also gain in popularity as prices on those devices come down, making for further competition in the market.