Thursday, July 25, 2024

‘We have won the war on floppy disks’: Japanese government erases outdated technology from systems

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In short:

Japan has scrapped more than 1,000 procedures and regulations that required the use of floppy disks.

The outdated technology had remained widespread and firmly ingrained in a country reluctant to give up familiar, older technology.

What’s next?

Japan will likely next turn its modernising efforts towards fax machines and the country’s penchant for paper filing.

Japan’s government has finally eliminated the use of floppy disks in all its systems, two decades after the technology’s heyday.

Digital Minister Taro Kono announced the long-awaited milestone in his campaign to modernise the country’s bureaucracy.

“We have won the war on floppy disks on June 28!” he told Reuters.

Japan’s Digital Agency spent several years scrapping more than 1,000 regulations and procedures requiring the use of floppy disks, which had remained widespread and firmly ingrained in a country reluctant to give up familiar, older technology.

However, the outdated hardware is unlikely to disappear completely.

An anachronistic technology

Created in the 1960s, the floppy disk emerged as a solution for information sharing in a pre-internet era, when computers utilised significantly smaller file sizes.

Sony introduced the ubiquitous 3.5-inch floppy disk in 1981 and was their last manufacturer until they ended sales in 2011, as floppy disks were replaced by more efficient storage technology.

By comparison, it would take more than 22,000 standard floppy disks containing 1.44 MB of data to match the storage of a single 32 GB thumb drive.

Japan’s modernisation push began in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a scramble to roll out nationwide testing and vaccination revealed that the government still relied on paper filing and outdated technology.

But they weren’t the first country to find old tech hampering important processes.

A 2016 report to Congress warned that the US’s Department of Defence (DoD) was still relying on 8-inch floppy disks as part of a system that “coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces”.

The DoD’s floppy disks were finally phased out in 2019 and replaced with secure solid-state drives, though some have noted the added security older hardware provides.

“I’m not sure I want the nuclear codes in ‘the cloud’,” joked Tom Persky, the owner of floppydisk.com, and a longtime advocate for the technology.

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“If you have a small amount of data you want to get in and out of a machine, and you want a dependable, robust, understandable, and cheap way to do it, a floppy disk is a pretty good option.”

Mr Persky joked that he was in the floppy disk business “because [he] forgot to get out of it”, but remained because there was still a niche for the technology in certain industries, like embroidery or avionics.

“Those [embroidery] machines were built to last 50 years, and they’re only halfway through their useful life,” he said. 

The average age of an aircraft in Qantas’s fleet is about 15 years, though the oldest individual planes are over 22 years old. 

In the US, the average is nearly 20, with United Airlines oldest planes being 33 years old.

Some aircraft of that age still rely on floppy disks for maintenance and technical updates.

“Those of us in the first world, we think everybody flies a new Boeing or Airbus aircraft, but in fact, a lot of aircraft are 25, 30 or 40 years old,” said Mr Persky.

‘Still the icon for Save’

Japan’s digitisation efforts, while successful, have run into numerous snags. 

A contact-tracing app flopped during the pandemic, and adoption of the government’s digital identification card has been slow and prone to data mishaps.

For Mr Persky, floppy disks have retained not only a certain nostalgic quality but are an important demarcation of how far technology has advanced.

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