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Can we pinpoint in what year the number of IBM-compatible PCs (whether original IBM machines or clones) sold without a hard disk drive became so negligible that almost all new commercial software, even games, started requiring a hard disk to function? I would assume that it was around 1990, but is that correct?

Edit: I'm asking about the transition, at the cheaper end of the PC clone market, from there being a significant number of flopy-disk-only PCs (containg NO hard disks) to pretty much exclusively PCs containing BOTH hard disks AND floppy disk drives.

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    Windows 3.0 in 1990 was the first release to require a HDD, if I remember, so that coupled with the boom in cheap commodity IBM clones around the same time is what would have done the trick.
    – Alan B
    Sep 26, 2023 at 9:06
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    "As the 1980s began, HDDs were a rare and very expensive additional feature in PCs, but by the late 1980s their cost had been reduced to the point where they were standard on all but the cheapest computers." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_hard_disk_drives
    – Mazura
    Sep 27, 2023 at 1:10
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    storytime: when I got my first PC in 1993 in a poor Eastern European county, I could choose between 130 MB and 250 MB HDD. Nobody would sell me one without HDD, since it was so obvious to have one. I used PCs that were bought years before that, including vintage XTs with Hercules gfx, and they already had 20 MB HDDs. TBH, even in a poor country using mostly second-hand electronics, no-HDD PCs were virtually unseen even in the ~1990 (those who bought no-HDD PCs already upgraded by then). The main selling point of PC was to have HDD instead of casette-, cartridge- or floppy-driven system.
    – user213769
    Sep 27, 2023 at 18:32
  • OTOH, I still had no-HDD LAN-based 486 PCs in my high school back in 2000s. AFAIK, they stayed there until at least 2005. Wouldn't call that "significant market share", though, Novell NetWare was a niche even back in its heyday :D
    – user213769
    Sep 27, 2023 at 18:35
  • Before the rise of the internet floppies were the only way to transfer data between machines. So it took 15-20 years more for those to become obsolete. Oct 13, 2023 at 6:53

6 Answers 6

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From memory of personal experience and in the UK...

For the general public, about 1988-1989.

For home PCs, I had a fairly large PC-buying and family-age community around me at work then. By those years, people were buying machines like the Amstrad PC1512 (launched 1986) and Amstrad PC1640 (launched 1987). The PC1512 had a high-end cost HDD option while the PC1640 with HDD option was more affordable. I saw a lot of those, though people bought plenty of other makes. Myself, I was a latecomer and finally bought a 286 in 1990 with a 65 MB HDD.

For business use, again around 1988-1989 for HDD machines being the standard work PC.

At work, the first PC I ever saw was in 1985: a Zenith dual-floppy. It was one of two shared amongst a load of us for a few years in our Training Dept., kind of like sharing them in a library. One engineer amongst a lot of office people had an IBM PC XT with HDD in 1986. In 1988, I had a Compaq 386 with HDD on my desk but two of us shared it and it was still fairly rare to have any kind of desk PC at work.

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    Thanks, I accepted this answer because it was most helpful for me (I'm from Europe as well, which probably made the shift a bit later than the US), that doesn't mean any of the others were not helpful.
    – TeaRex
    Sep 28, 2023 at 9:43
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The question seems to ask for several different points in time:

  1. When the floppy based PC was no longer a default option
  2. When application software (games) no longer worked from floppy alone
  3. When PCs manufacturers no longer supplied floppies as default configuration option.

Floppy Based

The floppy-based PC, that is a PC without fixed-drive (or other high volume media), booting from floppy started to become obsolete as early as 1983 with the introduction of he PC-XT and DOS 2.0(*1).

This point in time is especially interesting as commercial software almost immediately offered or in some cases even required FD installation, while at the same time games for the PC where next to non-existent.

The PC only started to become a home device considerable after 1985 with dedicated home machines introduced and reaching a sub 1000 USD price level. A good example here might be the Tandy 1000 EX (1987) in the US or Amstrad 1512 (1986) and Schneider Euro-PC (1988) in Europe. Those Machines started out as Floppy only but soon FD options and FD based versions were added (Tandy's 1000 RL being the last in 1991).

So the answer differs according to use case:

Floppy Based systems became

  • for professional use obsolete ca 1984
  • for home/game use between 1986 and 1991

Fixed Disk Required

Fixed disk requirement again differs between professional and home use. While it was still possible to use software like Wordstar on a single floppy system in 1985, I doubt that any professional user would still have continued to flipp floppies after generic support of hard drives was added to DOS. Also, more and more software did simply outgrow 360 KiB disks, making it impossible to use it floppy only.

In contrast games were during the mid 1980s often conversions from systems with smaller RAM and floppy sizes. even 'Big' games like Manic Mansion could thus run from floppy. LucasArts Games may in fact give a good guideline here as they were targeted right at the middle of the market:

In conclusion the flip point for games might be quite around 1988 to 1990.

No Default Floppy Anymore

That point in time might not only be harder to pinpoint as floppies never really fully faded, only moved from a dedicated interface to USB based solutions.

Although I had no issue to get a mainstream board with on board floppy interface in 2011 (*2), it became less of an option in the 2010s. For preconfigured systems this has ended a few years prior.

2005 to 2010 seems like a good cut off date for floppies being included with default builds.


Added 'Clarification'

I'm asking about the transition, at the cheaper end of the PC clone market, from there being a significant number of flopy-disk-only PCs (containg NO hard disks) to pretty much exclusively PCs containing BOTH hard disks AND floppy disk drives.

This is something that can't really be answered at all, as it very much depends on a force field between

  • assignment to solve,
  • available money and
  • ability to suffer.

I did meet people using floppy based 8088/286 way into the 1990s. Some didn't need more storage, but for most swapping floppies every few pages of text (*3) was bearable, the cost for a new computer not (*3).

With that in mind and for privat/soho the date may be anywhere between 1990 and 2000.


*1 - While there were solutions even before, operating DOS 1.x with large drives was rather painful.

*2 - AMD Phenom II 1055T based, still good for basic use in 2023 :))

*3 - One case I specifically remember was a translator working ca 1998 with a used md 1980s 286 and dual 5.25 drives and WordPerfect.

*4 - As so often updating is as much about the right point in time as it is about money (*5). An update in 1990 would have been rather painless using some IDE adaptor and a low end drive, those components became rare later on.

*5 - An issue most easy to note when looking at CPUs. Christmas 2021 AMD introduced its last series of AM3 CPUs. Prices are way down after almost two years, thus now would be the best point in time to upgrade, as it's quite likely that supply will dry up after this Christmas and prices rising again.

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    This doesn’t change your main point, but I suspect the change was slightly later for games — as you say, many were ports from other platforms, and the PC didn’t dominate until well into the 90s. The LucasArts games you mention can all be run from floppies (yes, even SoMI); they were also available for other systems where floppy-only setups were common (Atari, Amiga...), so it’s not surprising that the PC versions also support this. Even some CD-based games can run without installation to a hard drive! Sep 26, 2023 at 13:25
  • Even a high-density 5 1/4” drive should be able to fit 100+ pages of text (dozens for a double density disk) so I wouldn’t expect that much swapping. I do remember working with documents (BASIC files) which were too large to fit on even a 3.5” floppy but that was rare.
    – Charles
    Sep 26, 2023 at 19:02
  • Home use of the IBM PC/XT variants would begin with upgrades of the existing PCs and clones when hard disk controllers became available. By the mid-1980s there were auctions of 5 MByte hard disks that were basically unsaleable. By around 1986 our home 386SX machine was running a secondhand, refurbished 120MByte SCSI drive. Networks could be implemented cheaply with Arcnet as Thick and Thin Ethernet was limited to business installations. Suggest the home use date should be pushed back earlier than the current 1986.
    – PDP11
    Sep 27, 2023 at 4:00
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    I was an early buyer of an Amstrad PC1512, although I had a wait of a couple of months before I could collect it. Amstrad had assumed that only about 10% of customers would want a HDD, but in practice it was more like 60%, and the manufacturing took a while to catch up. That was 1986: in the UK, Amstrad had pushed the price of a HDD system down significantly, and sold to a lot of people. Sep 27, 2023 at 22:36
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    Another game landmark you could add might be Star Wars: X-Wing from 1993, also by Lucas Arts, which came on four 3.5" floppies and had to be installed on a hard drive. Sep 28, 2023 at 2:21
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Probably in the nineties (obviously, there won't be any "hard date").

One major development that marks the shift to hard disk-based PCs might be the introduction of "hardcards" - Combinations of a hard disk with a controller mounted to a single ISA card. This was a pretty PC-architecture specific development that allowed to transfer to a hard-disk-based PC with a simple slot-in card. You could probably fix the heydays of these to the (very late) eighties and early nineties. The hard cards are an important phenomenom to fix that date because they aimed specifically at PCs that were not originally intended to use a hard disk - And they were easily sold until as late as the mid nineties (and obviously, no longer after PCs were generally sold with fixed disk drives).

Whether or not you moved to hard disks was pretty much an individual case of applications you used and your willingness to spend. Even in the early nineties, a hard disk definitly meant a significant investment.

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Exception: Networking

PC networks are an interesting thing. With many variations, of course, they have evolved over the years from largely traditional client-server (cheap workstations, expensive server) to internet/intranet based. The internet/intranet based systems are, in a conceptual sense, the successors to dumb terminal multi-user systems. After all, is there really that much difference between using an ADM-3A over a 300bps modem to a BBS to discuss the latest hardware and using browsers on 64-bit computers over 100 Mbps fiber connections to a data center to discuss Retrocomputing? Not really, in the grand scheme of things.

Many PCs were used for a while, particularly in the 1980s, primarily as terminals. Anything from a standard serial terminal emulation into a multi-user micro or mini to a 3270 using an Irma card to connect to an IBM mainframe. Those could certainly run without hard drives if the terminal program was the only application.

A little later, networking filled the same role. I had a customer in the 1990s who had an accounting system running with a Netware server to a bunch of PCs, most of which lacked hard drives. It was slow. I upgraded them to a Multiuser DOS (variant of DRI Concurrent DOS, which itself evolved from DRI MP/M-86) to use the same PCs but now running terminal sessions over the network. That ran, relatively speaking, very fast, since now applications didn't have to load programs and data over the network, only the keyboard input and display (text only) output.

These networked setups - whether traditional client-server or terminal based - ran quite well for a number of years as a cost-effective alternative to higher-speed end-user computers with hard drives.

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    I've run Windows 3.x from a Netware drive before; I didn't think it was slow, although maybe we had a decent server and network.
    – Neil
    Sep 26, 2023 at 19:09
  • @Neil Depends on the workstation. A reasonably fast 286 or 386 and you may be OK. An 8088 PC? Not so much. And in any case, that still proves my point - floppy-only PCs had a bit of extra life based on networking. Sep 26, 2023 at 20:33
  • Fortunately I started out with a 286 although it would have been a 386 by the time I was running Windows 3.x.
    – Neil
    Sep 26, 2023 at 20:52
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact Sure, an 8088 was slow by itself, but already a 1 MBit/s network would deliver data faster than any floppy drive. Unless the task at hand was about huge data sizes, network vs, fixed disk didn't make much difference. Of course, if the server was as well only a PC-XT and serving several stations, experience might have been different :))
    – Raffzahn
    Sep 27, 2023 at 0:05
  • I was using IBM ATs with a Netware server and accessing a file on the server was much quicker than from the local hard disk. This might also have been true for Compaq 386s but I can't remember when local hard disks caught up.
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 22, 2023 at 9:35
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Your question is a bit mixed up.

Many applications needed a hard drive to run but loaded from floppy disks. I think Windows 2 did this let alone some of our internal software, and programs written in dBase could easily have more data than fitted on floppies. So hard disks were needed virtually from the day they were released in the early 1980s.

What replaced floppies was the CD Rom. e.g. Office 95 was on many floppies but fitted on one CD-Rom

The first machine to not have a floppy was the Apple iMac in 1998 so not an IBM compatible but showed that floppies were going out.

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  • Thanks for the answer. I am aware that the main distribution format was floppies until the CD-ROM fully took over in the mid-to-late 1990s. However many 1980s PCs, escpecially the cheaper clones, were sold completely without a hard disk, having ONLY floppy disk drives. I was asking how long that was the case, i.e. when did PCs without hard disks pretty much vanish from the market. I added an edit to the question to clarify this.
    – TeaRex
    Sep 26, 2023 at 9:04
  • There were not many IBM PCs sold without a hard disk as in your question. Your comment here is about PCs like Commodore 128 and that is different. Which is it IBM PCs or mpre general PCs
    – mmmmmm
    Sep 26, 2023 at 10:00
  • @mmmmmm There were a lot of IBM PCs sold without a hard disk. Start with all of the actual "IBM PC" (not XT or AT etc.). Then add on plenty of later machines - both IBM and otherwise - that were sold without a factory installed hard disk. Many of those got hard drives on day 1 - i.e., planned with the purchase of the machine but installed after receiving the machine to save some money. But many of them didn't get hard drives until years later (if ever) due to how they were being used. The Hardcard mentioned in another answer was specifically because many machines didn't come with hard Sep 26, 2023 at 21:01
  • drives - a Hardcard was normally more expensive at the time purchased than a regular hard drive, but it solved the problem for people with machines that came with either a smaller hard drive (so going from 10 Meg. to 40 Meg.) or no hard drive at all Sep 26, 2023 at 21:02
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My suggestion is to look through newspapers starting around 1988 and moving forward. I remember "The Toronto Sun" paper was basically a computer advertisement tabloid at that time and the most popular systems would have 1/2 or full page ads. There may be online archives of old newspapers in your area.

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