Our Floppy Disc Heritage

Reminiscing recently on my wife Mary’s experiences running our first company, Datascan (aka Text Sciences Corporation) in southern California.

We provided a media conversion service — moving documents from brand X word processors to brand Y. In those days before personal computers caught on, only large outfits had word processing, and there were about 50 different brands, using many incompatible types of data discs and internal file formats. Almost none could transfer documents to anything but a printer, much less to any other brand of word processor. Imagine having to package up your documents and mail them physically to a service bureau so they could be read (with some layout distortions) on a different brand of text editing device. It’s hard to believe we ever made it out of the 1980’s.

Many of our clients were law firms, and most users of our service were experiencing the pain of early adoption. On this occasion, Mary was on the phone with a prominent law firm, talking to a partner who had recently bought a personal computer, and who had paid our company to convert some legal documents from another firm’s word processing department. The attorney had opened his shipment of newly converted discs and didn’t know what to do next.

After explaining where the disc drive was, and which side was up, and which way the disc had to be inserted, Mary then told the client to close the door. There was a pause, followed by faint footsteps and the distant sound of an office door closing. When the attorney returned to the phone he said, “I have to say, Datascan is one of the few companies that really understands the importance of confidentiality.”

Another bizarre event, variations of which actually occurred several times, was the customer who, upon receiving a set of 8-inch floppy discs (which were actually floppy), called for further instructions. “Boy, those discs are really well packaged. I had to cut the black cover off with a scissor. And now it’s so floppy I can’t get it into the slot.”

Another disc packaging issue, which also happened more than once, was the customer who, upon receiving 8-inch floppies, discovered that he should have ordered his data on 5.25-inch discs. So he used scissors to make the conversion.

A few years earlier, I had written an instructional computer program for CP/M computers (the first generation of practical personal computers). The program displayed instructions on the top half of the screen, and provided an interactive demo on the bottom half. Across the middle was a line of text that read either “Please wait…” or “Ready: Press any key to continue.”

To our dismay, early adopters of this program called customer service to determine which, of all the keys on their terminal keyboard, was the “Any Key.” I quickly changed the message to “Press the Spacebar to continue.” We also received calls from people who flatly refused to believe they could press any key without risking the destruction of their computer. They needed to be given a method for selecting which key might be safe to press if no specific key was specified.

We’ve come a long way by now, of course. But I’ll take a closer look at that notion in another posting.

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