Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Film Rolls No More

When the IBM PC was introduced in the early 1980's the component cost of the 5 1/4" floppy drive was about $550. After some initial rapid cost reductions and a format change (with a capacity increase) around 1987, the device settled into a very regular 18% per year cost reduction. Although there were some attempts to expand the device capacity at the end of its life, the floppy basically relied on predictable annual cost reductions to remain on the PC platform. The image to the side is from an old technical paper of mine on integrated optics. Being partly a mechanical device and flash being made by photolithograpy, it was a matter of time before flash replaced the floppy; but floppies did not live that long and flash thumb drives are now used like floppies were although I am still waiting for AOL to start sending me dozens of free thumb drives in the mail. (Before net connections were standard, AOL used to send out its net connection software on floppy disk to anyone that they remotely thought might have a computer.)

Floppies were cheap enough to be considered free but lacked the capacity of a hard drive or tape. However, like tape, it was removable from the device and made for easy transfer of data from one machine to another. But therein lies the rub. Removable media are more a form of communications than they are of storage. Though the floppy was, in some ways competing with tape or a hard drive, the real competition was the internet. As files grew bigger and the internet grew more capable there was no longer any point to having a floppy disk. About the same time floppies were going away, optical discs (with a c) were on the rise. Optical discs were cheaper and much higher capacity. However, advancement of the internet and of wireless capacity has been relentless. Even the cheapest DVDs and Blu Rays today come with a WiFi connection standard and increasingly rarely get used to actually play discs.

Tape has disappeared as well. Hard drives were on a steeper cost curve and tapes inability to do random access did it in. AS on the PC platform, Tape's optical cousin, film, survived for much longer having inherently much higher data capacity. However,Fuji is now discontinuing its motion picture film business, shortly after Kodak announced its exit from the business as well. Although the decision may be credited to a general trend to have everything digital, end to end, it is really the low cost of digital transport rather than any cost advantage of digital storage. It was the combination of cheap hard drive storage and vanishingly small data delivery (as opposed to carting around 100 pound rolls of film) that spelled the end for film at the movie theater.

Film, of course, is not disappearing completely. Very high end theatrical projection such as Imax will continue as film is still top end as a theatrical display technology rather than as a communications or storage device. I earlier published a list of my favorite display related movies. There were only 9 in my top ten. Cinema Paradiso is my #10. Here's to film.


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