I recently came across a box of 5.25 inch floppy disks that contain all of my college papers from the late 80s and early 90s. I’m old enough to have gone through college without email or internet, just missing it by a few years. Imagine having to actually walk to the computer lab to do an assignment and then print it out in order to turn it in to your professor, only to notice an error before you got to class. Was this the stone age?
Since I enjoyed writing in college, this was an exciting find for me. I don’t have any hard copies of my papers from those days and, unfortunately, I don’t have a 5.25 inch floppy drive. I’ve had dozens of computers in my days with all sorts of drives. I just don’t tend to hang on to any of them once they become obsolete. Lucky for me, there is RetroFloppy.com, a service for rescuing files from aging disks and converting them to modern formats.
Mike: How long have you been in operation and what inspired you to start the business?
David: RetroFloppy was officially registered as a business in 2006. I’ve been interested in computers since I was a kid (my first was a Commodore VIC-20, that’s vintage 1982 for whippersnappers here) and never stopped upgrading from there. I’ve collected more and more varied vintage machines over the years, and have spent a career’s worth of time working with every manner of computer from micro to mainframe. One fine day in 2006, a woman posted in an online computer forum that she had a Commodore 128 disk from her recently-deceased brother that she wanted to read. I knew I could help. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mike: What is the volume of orders that you receive? Is there a high demand for this sort of data transformation?
David: I would say it is steady and increasing. Understandably, things started out small at first at RetroFloppy – and we enjoyed 100% growth year over year for many years. Things are slowing down now as we’re hitting our stride, but there is a never-ending stream of people that abandon older technologies and wonder why they can’t read their prior generation of stuff. Apple taught us from their original Apple I computer: get on the upgrade treadmill, or die. And that’s fine, as long as you remember to bring your data with you. Technology in general will let you bring up what you had one generation prior. But two? Fuggedaboutit. That’s where RetroFloppy comes in. Human nature being what it is, we all move forward with technology – from floppies to Zips to Jaz to CDs to magneto-optical discs to hard drives to the cloud (cocktail party trivia: “the could” is the same as “someone else’s computer” in terms of computer storage). Folks forget to upgrade as they go, and RetroFloppy is here fill in the blanks. As long as people forget to upgrade, we’ll have work to do.
Mike: RetroFloppy.com is a solid brandable domain name that you selected. Did you try other names before choosing this? What has served you well about the domain name?
David: Back when we were starting out, even then, we thought “all the good domain names are taken.” We wanted to have a domain name that conveyed meaning, and wouldn’t sound outdated 10 years hence. Imagine how ridiculous words like “cyberspace” sound now, or how ridiculous “metaverse” will sound in 2 years. It’s hard to predict trends, but going with the current trend is always a mistake. Pick something that is meaningful to your online presence, and you won’t go wrong. Yes, “coke.com” is taken. But “eBay.com”? What does that even mean? Sometimes you can create your own niche if it’s compelling enough.
Mike: Aside from 5.25 inch discs like I have, what are other popular retro formats that you deal with?
David: Everything. Under. The. Sun. There was an infinite amount of diversity of thought about storage 25 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago. It never ends. There are drive types I never knew existed back in the day, and folks come asking all the time with new formats. One eBay search later, and the answer is, “yes, we support that format.” It’s not quite as simple as just having a Zip 750MB or Bernoulli or Castlewood cartridge drive – you need to have the vintage equipment that will connect and talk to it, and even then you’re only half the way there. You still need to be able to interpret the files the come off of that vintage media. Hint: Microsoft Word doesn’t understand WordPerfect files any more. But coming back to your original question, the most popular retro formats that we see on a daily basis are the old standby 3-1/2”, Zip, and 5-1/4” disks. But there’s also a wide variety of computers that wrote those disks: Macs, PCs, Kaypros, WANGs, DECs – and so many more. We’ve learned to speak ASCII, EBCDIC, 8-bit, 12-bit, 16-bit, and everything in between.
Mike: Is there an age at which these magnetic floppy discs lose their ability to hold data and are unretrievable?
David: No. Absolutely not. There’s actually an inverse relationship with age: old, wide-tolerance disks tend to be easier to read than modern, densely-packed media. The worst are the early Mac 3-1/2” High Density (HD) disks. Bits were packed densely, quality control was spotty, and extraction is less than stellar today. When we see these particular disks come in, and they have a particular look about them – we know things are going to be rough. Old 8” disks are the most reliable, and they’re the oldest of them all. There’s a reason why they were still used in US missile silos until (very) recently. Apple II 5-1/4” disks that floated around in elementary school student’s backpacks in the 80s are still readable today.
Mike: One option I considered was purchasing a USB floppy drive. Two issues there. First, I can’t easily find a 5.25 inch that will work on my computer and second, these files are in a word-processing format that probably no longer exists. Are you able to convert those old formats into something I can read today?
David: You’ve hit upon the existential question about converting old media to modern formats. We get a lot of email that starts, “I bought a USB drive from Amazon, but it says my disks are blank…”. There’s two problems with modern USB 3-1/2” floppy drives. One, they can only read really recent PC disks. If you’ve got a floppy from 2012 that was written with MS Word, more power to you: you’re good to go, as modern Word will understand the file that came off of it. But if you’ve got a 5-1/4” disk – it’s a no-go. There’s no USB plug-in solution available. Period. Two, if your 3-1/2” disk was from an older DOS machine, or was 720K instead of 1.4MB, or Mac – psssht. Fuggedaboutit. No chance that is going to work. You can’t read or interpret it yourself for love nor money. We have amassed an arsenal of hardware and software that is able to interpret disks, computers, and operating system formats that is second to none. If it doesn’t exist yet, we create it.
Mike: Do you find most of your customers are personal users or business users?
David: That’s a great question. I’d say that we’re solidly half and half. We work with plenty of Great American Novelists that want to re-publish their works on Amazon, and send us their disks that have their novels in PageMaker or Wordstar format. We understand that stuff. Or moms and dads with shoeboxes of floppies from their Mavica floppy cameras want to see their babies again. Then there’s the business side of the business. We do work for:
– Archival entities
– Corporate entities
– Educational entities
– Federal entities
– Historical societies
– Legal entities
– Municipal entitles
– State entities
…and they all have their particular media and format requirements. Our job is to get them all into formats that modern office software understands. We might be pulling audio data off of a demo magneto drive from a rock band one week, and seismology data off of a box of 5-1/4” disks from an energy company the next. Or source code from historical video games or operating systems. Or some stuff we really can’t talk about. It’s all part of the business.