The world is full of weird and obsolete old data storage forms, and they're a huge problem for archivists and libraries. The changing types of data storage are a particularly large thorn in the side of libraries catering to the preservation of the written word in the early decades of the digital age, like the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center.
Regardless of your age, you have watched several data storage forms come into use and then disappear. Which forms in use now will be obsolete by 2020? Vote below in our poll — but first, here's a rundown of some of the data storage formats that have already gone to the great punch-card reader in the sky.
The obsolete workhorses
An early form of the punch-card came into widespread during the 1890 United States Census, with the data storage form surviving for decades, and playing a role during the Manhattan project (Richard Feynman headed up the human computer group using IBM punch cards). A series of coordinate holes in a sheet of cardboard, these cards only held a few kilobytes of data per stack.
Floppy discs, initially eight inches in diameter before shrinking to 5 1/4 and later 3 1/2 inches, survived four decades of use. Inserting one side of a floppy to begin playing Oregon Trail on my elementary school's Apple II, then flipping the disk over to get the other 113.75 kilobytes of goodness before our computer class ended became the highlight of every week. Thanks to their reasonably sturdy form and robust capacity, floppy discs prevailed for years and overcame multiple format and size changes.
The first nail in the coffin of the floppy disc came with 1998 release of the iMac. No longer needed thanks to the adoption of CD-Rom storage, the iMac lacked an internal floppy drive.
By 2003, floppy drives and their now tiny 1.44 MB capacity became relegated to the world of storage devices demanding an external peripheral drive, with floppies practically extinct in current day-to-day use.
Damned from birth
The SuperDisk and the Zip Disk based their size and shape roughly off of existing flopping discs, but allowed for increased data capacity. At the same time, using either disc required the purchase of a pricey new piece of hardware. The death-knell of these expanded capacity floppy discs came with additional iterations of Zip Drives and Zip Disks, with each higher capacity version requiring yet another piece of hardware for use, while posing backwards compatibility issues.
MiniDiscs became the device of choice for proto-hipsters, with my college roommate swearing by them until blank MiniDiscs could no longer be found at the local Best Buy. Not a conventional data storage medium, MiniDiscs concentrated on entering the retail music market.
The MiniDisc ultimately failed to penetrate the market, since it required the purchase of a new (and expensive) player, while a comparable data storage form, the compact disc, already existed and controlled most of the market share. Sony became the developer of several damned forms of media in the late 1990s/early 2000s, including the UMD and the "currently on its deathbed" Sony Memory Stick.
Which forms currently in use will survive?
Several form of data storage are in the line of fire during the next decade. SD cards, external hard drives, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and more are all currently in regular use — but which ones will go the way of the floppy disc, in the near future?
Secure Digital (SD) cards combine a tiny size with a reasonably common data peripheral. The adoption of SD cards as the storage device of choice in digital cameras has no doubt increased their lifespan, will this additional use SD cards allow the storage form to hold on through the next decade?
USB Flash Drives seem likely to stick around — they take advantage of a common computer connection connection, and provide a cheap and tiny method of storage. The adoption of cloud data storage and computing will play an interesting role, since they could make our internal hard drives obsolete, but I'm not quite sure we are ready to part with physical control and/or sharing of our data just yet.
Will we finally see the the CD or DVD go the way of the floppy disc? Humanity seems to have an affinity for round storage discs (such vinyl records), but will we finally toss that affinity aside now that our smartphone holds an indie record store's worth of music?
And how will the years treat the Blu-ray? If the PlayStation 3 lacked a Blu-ray drive, would you own a Blu-ray player? Sony's track record with new forms of media is definitely tarnished — so watching the lifespan of the Blu-ray unfold will be interesting. If we see Nintendo or Microsoft adopt the Blu-ray as a storage form in the next round of console wars, the lifespan of the Blu-ray will definitely be extended.
Vote for the storage method that's most likely to die soonest, in our poll below. Personally, I'm selecting the SD card as the next form of data storage to disappear — other than digital camera and quick switch needs, it lacks applications in everyday life. Which one is your choice to get the axe?