Jun 02

Largest floppy disk manufacturers world-wide

Category: Linux,Tools   — Published by goeszen on June 2, 2022 at 3:55 pm

Source: MIS via Buiness America. This infographic is copyrighted by goeszen.com

Remember floppy disks? Back in the day, with a peak in the 1990s, floppy disks as removable storage media was a big thing and the de-facto standard for quick and easy mobile storage. Think USB Sticks 1.0. The story of the magnetic disks' rise to fame, the transformations in the market and its slow demise with a shift to Asian manufacturers is an interesting story. And it's best told by looking at the world's largest manufacturers of floppy disks through the years. Here we go.

Floppy disks started as 8-inch large disks, round film disks in a rectangular vinyl sleeve for protection, with a small window where a magnetic read/write head could access the thin-film medium. These disks were no hard disks, or rigid disks as they were initially named. These disks were soft, flabby, as they were made from a plastic film carrier medium which was coated with a magnetizable chemical layer. This is where the name "floppy" comes from. And from the sleeve of these disks came the notion of naming these floppy disks also floppy diskettes. Introduced by IBM in 1971, the market accepted the new medium quickly and third-party manufacturers entered the market.
With technology advancing, it became possible to pack the magnetic information denser on the plastic platter. It startet with roughly 48 data tracks per inch (TPI), grew to 96TPI, 100TPI and 135TPI media. Along with the higher resolution came the demand to reduce the actual floppy disk package into a smaller format. This is why the world saw the advent of 5 1⁄4-inch floppy disks, 3.5-inch floppies and even smaller formats that never saw widespread use.

As outlined, IBM started it all. In the early 1970s, IBM was the first manufacturer of floppy disks and floppy drives but especially for disks third-party manufacturers quickly picked up. Among them Memorex, Shugart Associates and the Burroughs Corporation. All of them had a history in magnetic tape production, as the coating of plastic film with a magnetic medium is a chemical and difficult process, given that high quality standards have to be kept.
Then, floppy disks have to be written and read - and it's no surprise that IBM had an early foothold in the market. But also in the mechanical floppy drive field other players entered the market, with offerings from drive manufacturers Tandon and Shugart in the early days, or Micropolis with its 1040/1050 drive family, Calcomp's 142M or Micro Peripherals Inc (MPI) in the late 1970s following. These competitors also pushed the envelope on what was possible in terms of mechanical excellence and storage density. And although innovation was on the side of these later market participants, they never really took off and earlier manufacturers Tandon and Shugart were the dominant players for floppy disk drives until the early 1980s, when a shift to Asian manufacturers started as a third wave. Japanese manufacturers like Alps Electric, Sony, Panasonic, Citizen, Epson, TEAC took over and the US-dominance in floppy drive hardware was broken.

5.25-inch floppy disk closeup
5.25-inch floppy disk, closeup of where the recording head reads the disk, a Verbatim disk from 1989. Copyright goeszen.com.

As an American medium, the floppy disk remained long to be sold and predominantly produced in the US. Even during the early 1990s, when the market had already seen a heavy impact of Asian and European companies, still 44% of all floppy disks produced were made by US companies according to an article by Victor Kader in the June issue of Business America. This correlated with the available market for floppy disks, where 58% percent of all floppy disk demand was the USA, followed by Europe 26%, Japan 11% and the rest of the world 5%, stated by the same source. 3M, Nashua, Syncom were popular US brands. Europe contributed with BASF Infosystems, CSI Italy, Sentinel BV and Boeder / RPS, an arm of French chemical giant Rhone Poulenc, similarly to BASF from Germany with their EMTec brand. RPS was a white-label manufacturer for Commodore disks and became a household staple in the Commodore C64 community. Japan on the other hand, had its bets on Fuji Film, Sony, Hitachi's Maxell brand, TDK and KAO which is a large cosmetics and chemicals manufacturer to date.

The story of KAO entering the market is also an interesting one. The book The Entrepreneurial Mindset by Rita Gunther McGrath et al. has the details of how KAO entered the market in a late state, in 1990, after an in-depth analysis of the market and with a rigorous plan of crawling to the top. Two years later, KAO was well under way, in a time when a common disk cost 80 US cents. 1994 KAO had made it to the top, having the largest market share of all manufacturers, with its own KAO brand and as an OEM supplier. By 1997 KAO was the world's largest manufacturer of floppy disks, pumping out 400 million units a years and dominating the market. By that time, the format had already shifted from the larger 5-and-a-quarter-inch disks to the 3-and-a-half-inch diskettes with a plastic sleeve and a little automatic shutter on the bottom instead of the more old skool paper sleeve shipped with 5.25-inch disks.

That's when China entered the market. The manufacture of floppy disks, with its coating and high quality demands, was a question of skill but no rocket science either. So Chinese manufacturers went out and bought machines and equipment and quickly learnt the process of producing these disks. Quality was poor at first but went up steadily. And lower labor costs quickly led to a steep price drop. And KAO, who expected to harvest a ripe market over years, was losing market share by the hour, with prices dropping first to 75ct and then 25ct US. KAO had been squeezed out. By April 1998 KAO closed all disk production operations and exited the market.

For a few years to come, cheap disks from China would supply the world demand, yet, technology moved on and first the demand for 5 1⁄4-inch floppy disks died. A few years later numbers for 3.5-inch disks went down as well and made them a niche product used in textile knitting and sewing machines, ATM machines and obscure legacy applications.
USB solid state memory had won, with larger capacities and easier handling at ever smaller media footprints. And as there's no specific quality to data being recorded on spinning magnetic media, there's probably no renaissance of diskettes, ever - unlike as with audio on Vinyl where people hear (or feel) a certain uniqueness in storing the (sometimes analog data) on a legacy medium. The floppy disk, today only used in retro computing and legacy niche uses, is probably lost to history, forever. Good bye.

Where to buy floppy disks in 2022?

Knowing that this will change any day, but as a service to our readers, here's where you would source 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch floppy disks in 2022: search for floppydisk.com and athana.com. Both only carry NOS (new old stock) which means unused new disks but disks produced many years ago. Also available from these mentioned companies, there are recycled disks. If you buy from such a vendor, you can at least rely on them being well stored and/or checked. Then there's AliExpress and similar Asian surplus / sourcing portals. Some carry own NOS stock, others sell recycled disks - or both. As outlined above: especially in Asia some sewing machines are still programmed by feeding them with a diskette. And finally, there's NOS floppy disk barn and attic treasures and finds, where people sell individual boxes of sometimes sealed disks, mostly on eBay but also on AliExpress.
That's how it is. As of today, there's no active manufacturer of new floppy disks of any format worldwide. AFAIK. If you know something different, put it in comments.

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