Perhaps one of the most “classic” examples of Incremental “Innovation” and “building a better mousetrap” that I’ve seen (and the first example of forgotten technology in the recently-linked Ars Technica article I mentioned earlier) has been the various attempts to build a better floppy disk. From “super floppies” to magneto-optical drives, for at least a decade companies tried making bigger and bigger disks without asking the critical question of “will we always need a disk” to begin with. 😛 Then of course better LAN, WAN, and PAN networks came along as well as flash media and the mechanical disk was all but eliminated, with only optical discs and hard drives remaining, and even their future in question with more recent advances in solid state storage technology. 🙂
I took part in the “super floppy revolution” via Iomega Zip disks in college. Since disks were still going to be important with me having a desktop on campus rather than a laptop, when I went to my college orientation I made it a point to quietly head over to the computer lab and see what kinds of computers the college used. I immediately noticed that every single one of them had a Zip drive, so I noted that and arrived on campus with a Zip 100 external drive to go with my system (one of the classic models that clicked and made cricket noises when you put a disk in it :-D).
Having Zip disks in college instead of floppies gave one a massive advantage, as Zip disks were much bigger and significantly more reliable if you didn’t have one of those defective “click of death” drives that were the subject of a class action lawsuit back then because a mechanical flaw in the drive would basically start eating disks and destroying data when it gave out. Floppies really lived up to their name when even my AV Geek boss at my on-campus job admitted that floppies often “worked one day but not the next” and I saw more than a few class presentations ruined because of floppy disks abruptly quitting on someone.
I started with a Zip 100 drive, then moved up to a Zip 250 before Graduation rolled around. By the time the Zip 750 came out though I pretty much didn’t see the point of sticking with the medium. After college I noticed that I basically never used my Zip disks anymore, so the internal Zip 250 drive I had picked up in college collected dust in my computer until I finally removed it, with the floppy drive sticking around until years and years later when I finally removed that too in favor of a multi-card reader for flash media. …and just like that, my Zip disk days were over.
I can’t really say I have any remorse for dumping Zip technology after college. Zip drives in college computers were the big reason why I even bothered with them in the first place. I used burnable CD-Rs for my backups, so the only real use I had for Zip disks was saving class data on a large reliably reusable medium that blew floppies out of the water. Flash media buried super floppies though. No moving parts or issues with scratches, plus some stress tests I’ve seen have shown how SD cards keep working even after being hit with hammers or run over by cars, with only drilling through the card finally killing the data on it. 🙂 Zip technology of course was still mechanical and suffered from problems with mechanical failures in drives, write heads failing and wrecking disks, etc. I lost at least two Zip disks to either the click of death or a malfunctioning drive rendering a disk unusable, plus I went through three Zip drives in college – my original “cricket drive” which eventually succumbed to the click of death, a somewhat inferior USB drive that sounded like someone scratching records on a turntable when reading discs, and my internal drive that I finally got when I made the move to Zip 250 disks, so my worst drive (the cricket drive) only lasted about a year and a half. Not good in terms of longevity. If I had to go back to college tomorrow, be assured there wouldn’t be one single Zip disk in my backpack. 😀 I’d use SD cards for everything and bring an external USB card reader in case the computer didn’t have a card reader in it. Much smaller, more reliable, and most importantly, non-mechanical. 🙂
But what about Incremental “Innovation” you may ask? Well here’s where this all ties in to the concept. The whole super floppy wars and their assortment of now-dead technologies that have come and gone were all the result of a fatal flaw in the very concept of a super floppy in the first place – the assumption that we’d always need a mechanical or magnetic disk to begin with. Nowadays with physical media itself being threatened by networks, cloud storage, and other ways of backing up our data, it’s pretty obvious the slightly-improved floppy disk wasn’t a big enough leap. 😛