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    Thursday, February 1, 2024

    Japan’s Government Finally says Goodbye to Floppy Disks

    Olufemi Adeyemi 

    Sony may have stopped making floppy disks over a decade ago, but that hadn’t stopped the Tokyo government from relying on the obsolete tech. At least, not until now.

    If you think of Japan as being all high-tech futuristic cities, you might be in for a shock to learn that until recently, citizens were mandated to submit some digital documents on floppy disks and CD-ROMs, but that is no longer the case.

    The country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry put out an announcement last week, finally removing the need to submit digital documents using physical media. Taro Kano, Japan’s Minister for Digital Transformation, announced his “war on floppy disks” in August 2022, ARS Technica reported at the time. Until the law changed last week, nearly 2,000 government procedures required citizens and businesses to use floppy disks, CDs and Minidisks for document submission.

    The announcement from the ministry says that it changed 34 ordinances so that it eliminates the requirements of floppy disks. Some of these ordinances were related to quarrying, energy, and weapons manufacturing regulations.

    The first floppy disks were sold by IBM in 1971 and it was a revolutionary technology at the time. Floppy disks made it popular to easily load software and updates onto the massive mainframe computers used at the time, and it easily became the most widely used storage medium. But the floppy disks of the time were massive — they measured about 20 centimetres across.

    IBM introduced the high-density floppy disk for the PC in 1984 and it could hold 1.2 megabytes of data, which was a lot for the time. It was only two years later, in 1986, that the company introduced the 3.5-inch floppy form factor that usually comes to mind when someone says “floppy disk.”

    A single image you take on your phone today could easily overwhelm the 1.44 megabyte-capacity of the 3.5-inch floppy disk. As the rewritable CD was introduced in the 1990s, the floppy disk slowly fell out of favour until it was all but obsolete in the 2010s. But even today, they are not completely obsolete because many industries — like medicine, aviation, textiles, and plastic molding manufacturing —- sometimes still rely on them because of legacy systems that still use the technology.

    But Japan was an outlier because a large part of the entire country still uses floppy disks, largely due to the public sector. It is not uncommon for cutting-edge business laptops to still have a floppy disk drive and CD/DVD drive. Perhaps that will eventually become a thing of the past as well since the country woke up to the new millennium around two decades later.

    Japan's reliance on dated tech is something METI is tackling, but reports have noted resistance from some government bodies. This includes local governments and the Ministry of Justice resisting moving to cloud-based admin systems, per the Japan News newspaper. Japan is ranked number 32 out of 64 economies in the Institute for Management Development's (IMD's) 2023 World Digital Competitiveness Ranking, which the IMD says "measures the capacity and readiness of 64 economies to adopt and explore digital technologies as a key driver for economic transformation in business, government, and wider society."

    Some have attributed Japan's sluggish movement from older technologies to its success in establishing efficiencies with analog tech. Governmental bureaucracy has also been listed as a factor.

    Japan isn't the only entity holding on to the floppy, though. Despite a single photo these days being enough to overfill a floppy disk, various industries—like embroidery, medical devices, avionics, and plastic molding—still rely on them. Even the US Air Force stopped using 8-inch floppy disks in its missile launch control system in 2019. And last year, we reported on an Illinois Chuck E. Cheese using a 3.5-inch floppy for its animatronics system.

    US-based Floppydisk.com said that Japan's rule changes shouldn't endanger the business. Its Japanese customers are "mostly hobbyists and private parties that have machines or musical equipment that continue to use floppy disks," Tom Persky, who runs the site, said. Floppydisk.com also sells data-transfer services but told The Register in 2022 that the bulk of revenue is from blank floppy disk sales. At the time, Persky said he expected the company to last until at least 2026.

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