Click-Click-Dead: Pt. 1

Box of Zip disks

lil box of horrors 

Photo "Zip Disks" by Adriano Lima via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Zip disks today are the stuff of digital preservation nightmares, but when they debuted in 1995 they were all the rage, and Iomega, their creator, was a household name in digital storage. Zip disks contained more space than the 1.44MB floppy disks at the time and didn’t yet have the competition of optical disks. This was the type of technology that made you feel confident and secure even when you were in the Bermuda Triangle. [1] Storing an astonishing 100MB, 250MB, and 750MB, which was a legitimate big deal at the time, they definitely filled a need in the tech market. You needed one to sit at the cool kids’ table along with your Discman, mood ring, and Coogi sweater.

While I am not a fan of Zip disks it’s important to understand the history of Iomega and Zip disks to know why so many of them exist and why they can induce anxiety when you, say, open a box from the Robert Altman collection and find a dozen of them just sitting there. It’s also a fun story. This first blog post provides an overview of Iomega’s rapid rise and subsequent fall and will be followed by a second blog post that will address how Zip disks are handled in the Digital Preservation Lab.

The Rise

A large part of the reason Zip disks became as popular as they were was because of Iomega’s CEO Kim B. Edwards, a tech outsider and consumer marketing genius. He joined the company in 1994 when Iomega’s ride on the $500-$1000 Bernoulli Box wave was coming to an end. [2] [3] Bernoulli Boxes were hefty storage devices with equally hefty disks. While fitting for the aesthetics of the ‘80s, they were quickly losing their hip factor in the ‘90s. After numerous interviews, surveys, and focus groups to figure out what people wanted, Iomega and Edwards responded to the market with the Zip drive and a business plan like no other. [4] [5]

Edwards’ marketing research was key to the Zip disk’s appeal. He gave people exactly what they wanted. As Adam states, “What it [market research] found was people needed a way to store and share the ‘stuff’ on their computers. And they wanted it to be quick, easy and inexpensive. So Edwards ordered the engineers to work.” [6] And work they did. Edwards’ plan was an incredible success. Zip drives and Zip disks were flying off the shelves despite their respective $200 and $15 price tags. At one point, they were even integrated into Dells and Apple machines as default options. [7] Edwards increased Iomega’s value by 1200%. The company’s net worth went from $141 million in 1994 to $1.7 billion in 1997. [8] 

The Fall

But Zip disks, more than anything, are a lesson on why we can’t have nice things. They were too much of a good thing with their portability and adequate storage options. Pretty soon after Zip disks became widespread, Iomega became entangled in a class action lawsuit regarding a large hardware flaw and utter lack of customer service. In 1998, Edwards abruptly left and the fall of Iomega began.

Zip disks suffer from what is known as the “Click of Death”. Steve Gibson, the creator of a Click of Death awareness site, described this phenomenon best:

The word “Death” appears in the name for this problem since that’s exactly what occurs in real life: Minutes, hours, or days after the clicking is first heard, the drive -- and usually one or more of the user’s cartridges -- suddenly dies without warning. And since people tend to rely heavily upon their Zip and Jaz cartridges for the storage of their important data, this typically results in spontaneous, catastrophic, irreversible, loss of all their data. [9]

The Click of Death, or CoD for short, originated from a misalignment in the Zip drive or disk and is said to have affected one percent of all drives and/or disks. Depending on which component was misaligned, the heads or part of the disk would tear off. To put this in perspective, close to 200 million Zip disks were sold between 1999-2003 which translated to close to 2 million Zip disks affected by CoD. [10] [11] If a drive was bad, it could ruin whatever disk was inserted and vice-versa. You’d know CoD had gotten to your data when you heard a steady clicking noise emanating from your drive, but you would never be able to isolate the problem. You could unknowingly insert a bad disk into a drive and continue to spread the problem.

While news of CoD was less than thrilling, it was the customer service that really pushed people over the edge. If you needed help, you had to have your credit card in hand and time to spare because one phone call with customer service cost $15-20 and an hour in waiting. [12] In reaction to this, the community of Zip drive users came together and created “The Unofficial Iomega Click of Death” Geocities site to build solidarity and pressure Iomega for answers. All of this eventually culminated in a class action lawsuit that was filed in the fall of 1998 and settled in the spring of 2001. Iomega agreed to provide a free 24/7 hotline for troubleshooting, rebates and future discounts for anyone who purchased a Zip drive or disk between 1995 and 2001, and one million dollars’ worth of Iomega products and services to schools [13].

If you’re wondering by now how Iomega was able to weather the storm, they didn’t. At least not really. While Zip disks didn’t end them completely, it did signal the beginning of the end. After 1998, Iomega released a series of failed products, such as Jaz drives, which could also fall prey to CoD; PocketZips, a smaller version of the Zip Drive; and the HipZip Digital Audio Player, my favorite in the bunch. Iomega’s stocks declined within the decade. They were acquired by EMC in 2008 and again by Lenovo in 2013.

Meanwhile, digital preservationists find themselves in the same problem everyone else had decades ago: it’s still hard to find adequate support for Zip disks.

To be continued…

 

Endnotes:

[1] MrClassicAds1990s. Iomega Zip Drive Commercial 1998. Accessed March 28, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=civsZLQzrjs.

[2] “IOMEGA NAMES PRESIDENT, CEO.” DeseretNews.com, December 7, 1993. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/324702/IOMEGA-NAMES-PRESIDENT-CEO.html.

[3] Adams, Brook. “HIP CEO ADDS Zip TO IOMEGA.” DeseretNews.com, April 22, 1996. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/484962/HIP-CEO-ADDS-ZIP-TO-IOMEGA.html.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Flynn, Laurie. “Zip Drive Revives a Maker of Storage Devices.” The New York Times, September 18, 1995, sec. Business Day. https://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/18/business/zip-drive-revives-a-maker-of-storage-devices.html.

[6] “HIP CEO ADDS Zip TO IOMEGA.”

[7] Smith, Ernie. “A Floppy You Couldn’t Copy: When the Zip Disk Ran Into the Click of Death.” Motherboard (blog), December 11, 2016. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/kb79a9/a-floppy-you-couldnt-copy-when-the-zip-disk-ran-into-the-click-of-death.

[8] Knudson, Max B. “Resignation of Iomega CEO Stuns Industry.” DeseretNews.com, March 25, 1998. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/620555/Resignation-of-Iomega-CEO-stuns-industry.html.

[9] Gibson, Steve. “GRC | What IS the ‘Click Of Death’?” Accessed April 3, 2019. https://www.grc.com/tip/codfaq1.htm.

[10] Iomega Corporation 2003 Annual Report. Iomega, 2004. Accessed April 9, 2019. http://media.corporate-ir.net/media_files/NYS/iom/reports/Iomega_Corporation_2003_Annual_Report.pdf

[11] th3l4bf4n. The Screen Savers - Steve Gibson - Click of Death and “TIP.” Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmCzLy4l-qM.

[12] Smith, Ernie.

[13] Associated Press. “Iomega Plans Free, 24-Hour Hotline as Part of Settlement in Fraud Suit.” DeseretNews.com, March 5, 1998. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/616780/Iomega-plans-free-24-hour-hotline-as-part-of-settlement-in-fraud-suit.html.