By Interactive Strategies
Sep 02, 2011

Dead Technologies: Too Legit to Zip

As a high-schooler of the late 90's, I was fortunate enough to take several rather practical "computer" courses. The courses offered ranged from the utilitarian-- "Word Processing" to the vaguely occupational-- "Data Processing", to the cryptic "Computer Processing."   Classes were held in one of three computer labs in the school's main building.  The state of public school being as it was is, each of the three labs was equipped with the most average hardware money could buy.

Because of the relatively primitive desktop programs we used at the time, saving our work to 3x5" floppy disks was the norm.   But by the time I got to college, my applications (the software kind anyway) had gotten a bit more advanced.  Having traded in WordPerfect for Photoshop, the 3.5" floppy just didn't cut it anymore.  Enter: the Zip Disk.

In the mid-90's, Iomega released a number of physical storage solutions with the intent to provide a competitive and superior replacement for the aging floppy diskette.  While a few of the company's offerings definitely slipped by my radar (Bernouli Box anyone?), Iomega's Jaz drive and to a greater extent, its Zip drive format did eventually figure heavily into my computing routine, for better or for worse.

Unequivocally, the best thing about Zip disks was the sheer bounty of storage space they allowed for.  100MB!! (or 250 for the big spender). WTF am I going to do with all that space??  Heck, I could throw a 25MB .PSD in there with confidence.  A dozen or so hi-res .JPGs?  Sure, why not, there's room.  A few words .docs.  An MP3 or ten.  Maybe even an .AVI file.  A whole session's worth of class-work saved in one, beautiful, portable, disk.  And the price wasn't too bad.

The worst part about Zip disks was everything else.  In practice, the often sad truth is that these little bastards were temperamental as hell.  Incredibly fragile and seemingly more delicate than their floppy ancestors, Zip disks were susceptible to dust, moisture, heat, pressure, magnetic fields, lightning, brush fires and acts of god.  The list goes on.  You name it, Zip disks could be ruined by it.  Made all the more frustrating due to the increasing value invested in a disk's contents.  The perpetual growth of file-sizes meant larger and larger documents committed to storage, upping the ante for what one stood to lose should the hardware malfunction, which it invariably did.  Hyperbole aside, Zip drive / disk failures were a fairly frequent, if idiosyncratic occurrence amongst my peers and format-related superstitions were commonplace.  Remember the "Click of Death"? AWESOME, MY HOMEWORK IS ON THERE.

Eventually, as the price, speed, accessibility and reliability (most importantly) of optical media came around, Zip disks became but a lingering if annoying nuisance.  In time, Iomega and other purveyors of the Zip storage format broadened their offerings to more substantial USB and Firewire external devices and scaled up (or down, as it were).. to the smaller form-factor visible in more modern USB flash or "thumb" drives we know today.

Interestingly, with a quick search you can still find a 10-pack of Verbatim 3.5" floppies on sale at BestBuy.com (a steal at $4.99).  You know what you won't find?  Zip disks.

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