Who still uses floppy disks? Japan's digital minister 'declares war' on outdated storage

The portable drive is joining cassette tapes, Betamax, the BlackBerry and pagers on the scrapheap of forgotten technology

Japan's new digital minister Taro Kono takes aim at old-fashioned technology. Reuters; Fernando Lavin / Unsplash
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Japan’s digital minister Taro Kono has sounded the death knell for floppy disks, tweeting that he has “declared war” on the tech and joking at a press conference: “Where does one even buy a floppy disk these days?”

In the tweet, Kono stated: “There are about 1,900 government procedures that requires business community to use discs, ie floppy disc, CD, MD, etc to submit applications and other forms. Digital Agency is to change those regulations so you can use online.”

While Japan has become known for its contributions to global technological advancements — the pocket calculator, the Walkman and mass-marketed laptops all originated in the island country — outdated office culture hasn’t stayed inline and information is still regularly stored on disks.

Does anyone still use floppy disks?

Due to their imperviousness to hackers, floppy disks still remain in use by large organisations and governments, although they are being phased out.

In 2016, much to the nervous amusement of the public, a report revealed how the US nuclear programme was controlled by floppy disks. It was finally stopped in 2019.

Modernisation of the Strategic Automated Command and Control System began under President Barack Obama, prior to that the system had used floppy disks and 1970s computer hardware to manage intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers.

As recently as August 2020, it was reported that Boeing 747s built in the late 1990s received critical navigation updates via floppy disks. Alex Lomas from cyber security company, Pen Test Partners, shared a video of a navigation database loader, which required a floppy disk.

Sony, the only company to continue manufacturing floppy disks, ceased production in March 2011.

What is a floppy disk?

Small flash drives and memory sticks now hold gigabytes of data, which would previously have needed thousands of floppy disks. Photo: Hosein Zanbori / Unsplash

Given their name because the first versions were very thin and bendy, the floppy disk later evolved into a solid yet slim square of tech on which to store data. Inspiring the save icon on most computers, the storage method has gradually been replaced by flash drives, laptops with bigger storage capabilities and "the cloud".

The BBC estimates more than 20,000 floppy disks would be needed to store the same amount of information that a 32GB memory stick can.

Developed by IBM in the 1960s, floppy disks came to prominence with the rise of computers in offices and homes as users sought to store and transfer data between machines.

The introduction of Apple’s iMac G3 in 1998 which had a CD-ROM drive but no floppy disk drive spelt the beginning of the end for the once ubiquitous disk.

‘The fax is next’

Kono told reporters that his agency would act “swiftly” in their push for modernisation, which has the full support of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Having recently become the digital affairs minister during a cabinet reshuffle, Kono has wasted no time making a name for himself on social media.

“C’mon, there is no analogue thing left in our remarkably advanced society,” he tweeted last month. “Oops, my fax machine is jamming!”

And, at a recent news conference, he said: “I'm looking to get rid of the fax machine, and I still plan to do that.”

He is likely to face opposition to his plans due to Japanese office culture, which prefers physical documentation over emails and online files.

Media reports in the country said there was “anxiety” over Kono’s anti-fax machine drive, citing security concerns.

Japan’s last remaining pager provider only closed in 2019, with one private subscriber remaining. The country's cyber-security minister, Yoshitaka Sakurada, admitted in 2018 that he had never used a computer, saying: “Since I was 25 years old and independent I have instructed my staff and secretaries. I have never used a computer in my life.”

Updated: September 02, 2022, 10:33 AM