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Floppy Slowly Dying?

When the computer industry talks about killing the 3.5-inch floppy disk, personal computer users like George Velez get upset.

"I'd be handicapped," says the ticket-office manager at Circle Line Cruises, who uses disks for storing memos and letters and even takes them home to work from the comfort of his Manhattan apartment.

Computer makers' hopes to phase out the timeworn diskette are running head-on into folks like Velez.

Never mind the 1.44-megabyte medium is too puny to store many new computer games and bulky data files. It isn't even that floppy. And external storage devices such as Iomega's Zip drive sport many times the capacity.

In the latest insult, the medium gets the boot this weekend when Apple starts selling its bold vision of computing's future the iMac, a new Macintosh that lacks a floppy drive.

Despite a growing push to phase out the computer staple, most users still swear by the inexpensive, convenient method for storing and exchanging files with friends and co-workers. Emerging alternatives, such as recordable CD-ROMs, are currently too expensive for most consumers.

A staggering 2.3 billion diskettes were sold worldwide last year, according to Magnetic Media Information Services, a Tokyo-based research firm. While that number has been steadily dropping to well under 2 billion this year partly due to the growing use of CD-ROMs to distribute software, experts say it's a slow fade.

Such persistent loyalty is freezing the computer world in a time warp. Even as new machines sport drives for running high-capacity digital video disks sort of souped-up CD-ROMs that hold the equivalent of several full-length movies PCs continue to include built-in floppy drives. Floppies are still handy for backing up files against computer crashes, which can wipe out information stored on the harddrive.

The more gradual approach clashes with Apple's radical shift in the Macintosh it starts selling on Saturday. And some critics say the futuristic iMac sporting a built-in monitor, and an eye-catching translucent design may be a bit ahead of its time, at least in this regard.

Apple, arguing that the 3.5-inch floppy is a dying medium, says most iMac buyers will add external drives or transfer files via e-mail.

But others say the snub to floppies may make it tough for Steve Jobs, Apple's interim chief executive, to reach beyond its main customer's graphics and publishing professionals to those who mainly do simple word processing. An add-on drive could add $90 to the cost of the $1,300 machine.

Still, Apple could be pointing to a future without floppies.

Written by David E. Kalish