There was a brief interlude when the Zip disk reigned supreme. I was reminded of this when my dad plonked a box of computer cables on my floor. Amongst the tangled mess was an Iomega Zip drive (see figure 1).
The Zip disk was a kind of corporate standard in the late 1990s, because it held 100MB. Not a lot by today's standards of cheap 64GB USB drives, but in the day that was 32x more than the ubiquitous 3.5" floppy disk. Now, 100MB was 6.5x less capacity than a CD disc, but read-write CD discs were slow and uncommon in the mid-1990s. The 100MB Zip disc was reasonably fast and sturdy. They could be mailed by courier.
Well, sturdy-looking, anyhow. They began to suffer the "click of death," in which we knew a Zip disc had failed when the drive tried repeatedly to read it, resulting in the clicking sound. There was no recovery.
The Zip drive in the box my dad delivered was the second generation one, a Zip 250 with both parallel and USB connectors, and a slimmer build. I had bought it for my dad, because he wanted a backup system for his computer. It used 250MB disks (see figure 2) and carries a manufacturing date of November 2000. The 2.5x greater capacity was a blessing, but soon after Zip disks began to falter in popularity due to the angst of failing discs.
Figure 2: The 250 MB Zip disk
Iomega offered two other backup systems: the Jaz drive with 2GB cartridges and the portable Cliq system that used small 40MB disks. I had both. The Jaz system was fast, because it used a computer's SCSI hard drive interface, but the cartridges were ridiculously expensive.
I thought that the Cliq system would be useful for backing up photos from my first digital camera, but it was a fail. The camera's memory card was 64MB, the disks held 40MB. It was a raw backup; the Cliq did not track which files had been copied and which had not, and so I could not back up 64MB over two disks: only the first 40MB would ever be copied. In any case, the copying procedure often failed, and so I could not rely on it.
(I think that Iomega named the system "Cliq" as a rebuke against the "click of death" complaints.)
The product failures and the rise of the CD+RW disk caused Iomega to decline, its share price falling from $100 (late-90s) to $2 (mid-2000s) and finally EMC bought it.
I am amazed that we can still buy all these products on Amazon.
Plugging It In
Would a modern computer recognize technology from the 1990s? I decided to try it out. Fortunately, the box with all the cables included the power supply for the Zip drive. There was a 250MB Zip disk still in the drive. All I needed was a printer-style USB cable (that's the one with the square connector at one end), of which I had spares.
First I plugged in the power to see if the drive still worked. The disk began whirring, so it was time for the next step.
I plugged the USB cable into a Windows 10 computer, and here is what I consider amazing: the ability of Windows to detect, download, and install drivers without human intervention. In short time I was examining the contents of this Zip disk that had gone unused since March 2003.
The final test was to plug the unit into an Mac running the latest iOS. It was also recognized, mounted, and displayed the files.