Zip Disks: Why They Became Obsolete

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Brian Dunn, an electronic musician in Skokie, Ill., used to use Zip disks. He owned three drives between home and the office (Dunn is an executive for a business software developer), “but I got tired of losing data,” he said. The “click of death” — the clicking sound particularly in Iomega Zip drives that preceded a head crash and disk edge damage — affected Dunn’s storage in the late 1990s as it did many others.

Writeable CDs were on hand to displace problem-prone Zip disks. “The only improvement with CD-R in my eyes was the reliability,” Dunn said, “but you lost the read/write ability of the Zip disk.”

There have been a number of storage trends over the past decade that replicate data for backup and file sharing, said Ajay Singh, director of product management for Decru, a developer of storage solutions based in Redwood City, Calif. A single backup tape can hold a terabyte of data, which in print would be about 20 million sheets of paper. “And you can fit a lot of data onto a USB drive or laptop,” he said.

“Lately, my replacement for the Zip disk has been portable hard drives,” said Dunn. They provide high storage capacity, are very reliable and “they’re small enough to tote around with your laptop.” Dunn also uses a 2 gigabyte SD chip from Palm to “sneakernet” — or transfer electronic information by removable media from one computer to another versus over a computer network — files.

Flexibility Is Key
One of the metals in the alloyed final nail sealing the coffin of the Zip drive was the marketing of the device, said Joanne Reinhardt, a network administrator at Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y. Some computers had the option of preinstalled Zip drives that drove up the final price. The capacity limitations of Zip drives proved inadequate for growing file sizes. The appeal of a Zip drive wasn’t there, so the premium price had no place in the market, either.

“Burning to CDs became sexier, easier and more convenient to consumers,” she said. Part of their attractiveness was their capacity — 650 MB versus 100 MB for Zip disks or 250 MB for Jaz storage. “Storage capacity needs will always go up,” she said. “Years ago 1 MB was considered enough. Now that’s the average size of an e-mail attachment.”

“Most companies estimate that they are at least doubling the amount of data they store each year,” Singh said. In addition to file backup, organizations rely on storage media to retain the data, often for years.

The click of death also pounded on the Zip drive’s pine box, of course. In addition, patchy adoption of Zip drives decreased their functionality and ultimately their use. “Unless a company had multiple Zip drives, Zip wasn’t very practical. It wasn’t universal enough — not like jump drives now,” Reinhardt said. With USB ports in all hardware, anyone can insert a flash disk in any machine or storage device.

Tape backups, DVDs and mirrored servers handle storage and protect data loss, while CDs and flash disks allow for agnostic transfer from one machine to another. Today’s storage and file transfer media do not need to compete with one other. “Redundancy is more stable and a safer solution than a complete shift from one technology to another,” she said. “Things and users’ needs change so fast in the industry, it is difficult to say which is best.”

“I personally don’t know of anyone using Zip disks anymore,” Dunn adds, qualifying the general acceptance of multiple storage tools. “No matter how great [a storage developer’s] solution is now, there’s something better, faster and cheaper around the corner. Hopefully, they’re the ones developing it.”


Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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