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The Zip Disk Is Dead, Long Live The Zip Disk!

The Zip Disk Is Dead, Long Live The Zip Disk!

by , 11:30 AM EST, February 27th, 2001

It seemed like only yesterday when SyQuest was the king of removable media. In those days graphic artists and other people who worked with large files relied on their SyQuest 44 MB or 88 MB cartridges to move their files between their studios and printer shop. It was a love & hate relationship with SyQuest's near monopoly on "low-cost" removable media. As for everyday users, we were in the world of the floppy disk. (For you new Mac users, a Floppy disk was 3.5 inches and held 1.4 MB of data.)

Then one day, the removable market was changed forever; a scrappy second-tier company introduced the now famous Zip Disk. Suddenly the market had an inexpensive technology that was well designed and brought a massive 100 MB of storage to anyone's desktop. SyQuest saw their leadership role disappear over-night. Their attempt at a Zip-killer, the EZ-Drive had a few merits but the writing was on the wall. SyQuest would become just another chapter in the computer history wall of fame. (Or is that shame?) Things looked well for Iomega as countless users adopted the Zip Disk format. However, they soon faced some serious issues. Quality of manufacturing and the "Click-of-Death" was mentioned on almost every computer web site. This brought some class-action suits but Iomega somehow managed to survive and thrive.

Of course other media companies were not satisfied with allowing Iomega such a huge market share and so many companies introduced their solution. Magnetic-Optical (MO), which holds the largest market share in Japan, was introduced by several vendors. MO media comes in several formats (128 MB, 230MB, and two over 1 GB), but in the past suffered from low access speeds. Some of the newer drives boast fast access speeds and even FireWire interfaces. The main advantage of this format is the shelf life. Some researches claim this is the best format for long-term archives. Matsushita (Panasonic) and Sony also tried their hand at removable media. Sony's DataMan seemed like a good idea at first, but they quietly killed it when no one paid any attention to it. Some Sony engineers are still trying to push this format forward with higher capacities. Matsushita introduced the PD format. PD? Right, let's move along.

In the last two years some start-ups and established media companies have introduced some other formats, however they have had little success in capturing large market share. Iomega also tried to expand on their Zip Disk success with a 250 MB version as well with their Jazz and Click-disk series. Of course, some users have found success and value in the alternative formats but the 100 MB Zip Disk remains the standard.

If any company had more of an effect on media in the history of computers it must be Apple. They weren't the first to use the 3.5 drive, or the CD-ROM, but their use of these formats pushed the industry along. When Apple introduced the iMac without a floppy disk, companies scrambled to introduce a solution. USB-based floppy disks were "re-introduced" almost at the same price as a Zip Drive. Other companies introduced high-capacity floppy-type media but consumers on a whole, have ignored them. More recently, Panasonic has announced a super-density floppy-type format.

You must be thinking he is forgetting "my media of choice, the CD-R/RW." Actually, I left that for last. This media has done the most to decrease the Zip Disk's hold on the removable media market. Not only do you get 650 MB of storage, but the cost per media is extremely low. Couple this with the fact that the drives have come way down, they can be used for other projects (music, making coasters, etc.) and they can be found everywhere, this is the format that is doing an "Iomega to Iomega."

There is another factor we have to consider, the Internet. As more users have access to broadband Internet, it has become easier to transfer that 200 MB DTP job to the print shop's server.

I took a step back from my computer desk for a moment and analyzed the situation. There's a box of 100 or so blank floppies that is collecting dust. They refuse to die, and I refuse to throw them out despite my wife's pleading. Next to those floppies are about 70 Zip Disks. There are so handy that I fill them up in minutes, but I'm starting to feel like I did back in the pre-Zip days. Next to my Zip disk collection I have about 40 CD (R)s that make me wonder when they will no longer be readable by my CD drive.

Let's get back to Zip Disks. Although I live in the land of MOs (they are very cheap and plentiful here) I can always find blank Zip media. About two years ago I remember paying about $12 a Zip Disk. The price went down to about $9 a disk as they became popular in Japan. To my horror, the last time I checked they were up to $18 a disk. I must be in the wrong store I thought, so I tried a few more computer stores and sure enough Zip media price has doubled in my town. (I live in a 'small' Japanese city of only 300,000 people so Tokyo prices may differ.) By the way, when I say price rise I mean every media company (Iomega, Fuji, etc.) and format (PC/Mac) was higher.

I was going to buy my wife a USB Zip Disk for her iMac, but I think even a slow USB CD-R/RW would be better after my shock from the Zip's media price rise. Apple's shift from DVD-ROM to the new drives in the G4s also should be an indicator to "stock up on the Zip media now." Actually, I don't see the media disappearing over night as there are so many drives out in the world, but I think Iomega should be ready to move its business quickly lest it become another SyQuest.

It will be interesting to watch how Apple's (ok, soon the rest of the PC industry) new drives will alter the media landscape. We should also keep an eye on solid-state storage devices such as the Sony Memory Stick, Smart-Media, and Flash Media.

Carlos Camacho is Editor-in-Chief of the web site iDevGames ( which is devoted to the design and development of Macintosh games.

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