I had to wait about 5 years before hard drives (HDs) became affordable enough to begin moving off of floppies. During this time, I remember my desire for an HD being based on convenience. All the software I used was designed to run fine from floppies, but an HD offered much faster loading plus access to all those applications without swapping floppy disks and (sometimes) rebooting. The combined speed and ready access translated to the convenience that made an HD highly desirable for me.

But many mainstream computer users weren't focused on running lots of different application like I was. They just needed one or two applications that were critical. The implication being that unless those applications required an HD, the HD would not be worth the significant added expense. I'd like to know what early, popular PC applications fell into the category of requiring an HD, based on the sheer size of the code and/or data they needed? Also is there evidence of any application being a "market driver" in the adoption of HDs?

Out of the triad of word processing, spreadsheet, and database as the early "sweet-spot" for serious PC applications, it seems obvious that a database would be the most likely to require and benefit from an HD. So, I'd ideally like an answer that challenges or confirms that assumption by citing specific popular applications of the time.

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    I think the question in itself is malaligned, as disk space needed is rarely about programs/applications. But data. And already a siple wordstar text document can excede a floppy. There are many professions that need to work with large documents and handling them in sections with a seperate floppy for each is not only inconveniant, but translates to direct cost, that outrun the investment for a hard disk within weeks. – Raffzahn Aug 3 at 19:08
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    I know Wordstar was popular. I did not know it was routinely used to edit documents that would not fit on a floppy, since I'd assume those documents needed to fit in RAM, and floppy capacity typically outpaced RAM capacity. – Brian H Aug 3 at 20:55
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    Beside that PC RAM exceded PC-Floppy size (360 KiB), It was already one great feature of Wordstar under CP/M to be able to handle text larger than available RAM. – Raffzahn Aug 3 at 22:14
  • @Raffzahn An application requiring a hard disk would be one where the application itself exceeded the size of a single floppy and couldn't handle swapping. Windows 2.1 and later would be such an example. – user71659 Aug 4 at 2:50
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    There were plenty of people whose work involved sitting down and typing pretty much continuously. Whether it was data entry, letter writing, or writing up accounting information, a person with practice can produce data at a rate of roughly 30-40KB per hour, i.e. in an 8 hour day they can nearly fill a DS DD 5.25" floppy disk. For people working with that kind of data, hard disks are an essential organisation tool. – Jules Aug 4 at 9:32
up vote 14 down vote accepted

I started working for a newly-certified IBM PC dealer in the UK at the end of 1984. IBM thought we would be selling about 50% twin-floppy PC (PCG) and 50% XT with 10MB hard drive.

In fact, I'm not sure we ever sold a PCG. Perhaps it's because we were focused on accounting and payroll applications for small businesses - not something you would consider with 2 x 360kB drives where the programs were about 4 or 5 diskettes and the data about the same.

We also sold a cheaper CP/M-86 machine and had some twin-floppy users who just did word processing.

At that time in the UK, a PC was not something you would buy other than for business - there were other architectures which were much better value for money. It was not hard to convince businesses of the value of a hard drive.

  • (for reference, so that people like myself who weren't familiar with the name don't need to go and look it up: "PC/G" was one of the models of the product range usually called the "PC 3270", i.e. it was an XT with an added 3270 terminal emulation board) – Jules Aug 9 at 22:19
  • @Jules, PCG was the first model sold outside the USA with 64K x 1 RAM chips, PC1 was the original model with 16K x 1 RAM chips. I've edited the question to remove the dash. – grahamj42 Aug 10 at 5:47

I cannot state for certain that it required a hard disk, but using AutoCAD (v1 released Dec.82) without one would have been awkward to well-nigh unbearable. The program itself was huge for the time and used countless data files. I can't imagine running it from floppy.

Even if v1.0 could do so, by the time v2 or v3 was released HD had to be required. It pushed the PC to its limits, demanding "high-res" graphics and RAM beyond 640 kbytes.

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    Re: "the computer it ran on", technically CP/M was the original feature lead for AutoCAD rather than DOS, because CP/M had actual graphics drivers by then so was easier to get started on. But that was still 1982; the company undertook simultaneous development and CP/M just happened to take the lead. Source: fourmilab.ch/autofile/www/chapter2_14.html . And I think AutoCAD-80 may now be lost software. Just a trivia digression for you! – Tommy Aug 3 at 20:41
  • I remember building a custom PC for AutoCAD around 1988-89. It was the first time I saw a Number NIne graphics card and a high capacity 3.5" HD (I think around 100MB). – Brian H Aug 3 at 20:48
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    For AutoCAD 1.4 on DOS, the the program, overlay files and whatever graphics driver you needed from the utilities disk fit very comfortably on a single 360K floppy and ran just fine. 2.x was bigger, but my fuzzy recollection is that it could fit on a 1.44M disk. – Blrfl Aug 5 at 19:09
  • @Blrfl I guess it makes sense that the earliest versions didn't have as many features. By the time I used it in the mid-1980s as part of a summer job it must have had hundreds if not 1000s of support and data files. I don't remember the version or OS (it was my boss' machine) but I know it had an HD and a dongle. – RichF Aug 6 at 5:41
  • FWIW, I found a set of the 1.4 and 2.62 disk images for DOS and dumped their directories: gist.github.com/blrfllabs/88740500a12ef45ea7cc0dfdc8ffaccd – Blrfl Aug 6 at 12:18

You can check the Whole Earth Software Catalog; I remember it listed a few apps as requiring hard disk. It came out in 1984, which would have been pretty early. For example DESQ does (pg 114). It's not a database btw, but a window switcher/proto-gui type of thing. Real World Accounting on pg. 103 is another, and there's even a program called Great Plains Hard Disk Accounting on the next page. It's for the Apple III though.

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    Great Plains supported DOS at the time too (and is still available today, BTW, although it has been renamed - it's called "Microsoft Dynamics GP" these days). Don't know whether it needed a hard disk, though – Jules Aug 5 at 15:46

Like RichF, I have a hard time to remember any that required a hard disk. On the other hand, it was conveniant to have a hard disk already early on. Swaping floppies, looking what to boot an where to put data might be a no-brainer for a tech nerd, Ordinary users, even if 'only' typing letters will get anoyed soon.

For example I remember an architecture company buying PC's with harddisk and Bernoulli drives already in 1982. The harddisk was ment to cover all software plus generic data, while the 5 MiB bernoulli disks did take all documents for a single project. The whole setup worked much like HD plus floppies, except the floppies being much larger (5 MiB vs. 360 KiB) and faster :)

So in this case it was less about the amount of data, as a handy process.

While above is a well defined and good worked out use case (multipe PCs to share data collections on a project level), the same urge for steamlined data handling can be found in many businesses. The need for a harddisk is rarely about programs but always about real world application thereof and the data involved/produced. Not some fancy data, but everyday stuff, just a lot thereof.

Engineers, architects, surveyors, assessors and many more needto handle quite large documents as part of their daily business. Servic specifications for a multi story building can easy count 500 and more pages. While spliting them up into a multitude of floppies is doable, it does take time thus can directly be calculated as valuable employe time - not to mention time lost by mixing up disks, one part exeding (again) a single floppy and all the issues with backup copies. These documents are the core business case for such companies, making every possible step to secure them important and cheap compared to what a lost section or dokument might mean.

Spending a few grands on a hard disk is an extreme cheap measure to improve productivity and security. Or to use a well known phrase: It's about the data, stupid.

  • Your answer is a variation of the convenience factor I presented in the question. Convenience in accessing many data files, as opposed to many applications, certainly drove HD adoption too. – Brian H Aug 3 at 20:40
  • @BrianH Not sure it it is a 'conveniance' issue, when not having a hard disk costs a business measurable amounts of money - usually in a region that makes a return on investment for a hard disk within a quite short time. Conveniance might be a factor for pricate users, but doesn't realy count in a business environment. Time flipping disk is an additional cost in using a PC. No matter if the disk flipper is self employed or a payed employe. – Raffzahn Aug 4 at 1:46
  • @Raffzahn The OP asked for software which wouldn't run without a hard-drive - not software which was much easier to use with one. As such, you haven't answered the question. – Martin Bonner Aug 4 at 15:01

PC-File III is a database that works well even without a hard drive. I used to run it from a 1.2MB high density diskette.

I don't know of any consumer applications that required a hard drive back then, only specialty programs like AutoCAD as @RichF mentioned. Windows 3.0 is probably what really drove the home market for hard drives, and what drove the market for Windows 3.0 was asked and answered in another question.

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    Windows 3 was the first version to require a hard drive IIRC, but by the time it was released PCs were already commonly sold with a hard drive. Perhaps Windows 3 ended up nailing the coffin of hard-drive-less PCs, but I’m not sure it drove the home market for hard drives. I’m trying to remember when games started requiring hard drives; that could also have been a factor (but I’m not sure it pre-dates Windows 3). – Stephen Kitt Aug 3 at 21:03
  • @StephenKitt That would be a good question to ask Retrocomputing. – traal Aug 3 at 21:53
  • I'd think both games and GUIs would qualify as "applications". Did DOS ever require a hard disk, officially? – Brian H Aug 4 at 15:20
  • @BrianH I believe DOS 6 and above officially require a hard disk as they are supplied with a setup application that expects to be installing to a hard disk. They can still be used without in the traditional way, however, it's just not officially supported. – Jules Aug 5 at 15:51

I graduated in computer science in 1983, and worked for Robocom, a company that made the "BitStik" CAD system for Apple II machines, and later, RoboCAD, a system that eventually failed to compete with AutoCAD.

Thinking back to those days, a major advantage of hard disks was reliability. Working with floppy disks full-time, you'd expect to have one or two go bad each month. But if you just used floppies for backups, in proper rotating sets, backing up once every couple of days or so, they were almost completely reliable, simply because they weren't being used so hard.

Smoking was common in offices at the time, and ash is bad for floppy drives and disks. But sealed hard disks didn't notice.

Schools used Apple II computers with a twisted pair cabling system known as DigiCard, which had a dedicated server box with a SCSI drive. The MECC Apple II educational software library was available from any computer by simply turning it on without a disk in the drive.

Another company had an Apple II school networking system called Mastery Development, which used large 25-27 pin data cables strung in daisy-chain fashion from one Apple II to the next, and up to about 32 computers across the chain. The server was an Apple IIgs outfitted with the Apple High Speed SCSI controller, disk image data stored in ProDOS volumes, and memory expansion for caching. It offered similar capabilities to DigiCard, including the MECC software library, plus also student accounts and software written specifically for the MD platform for collecting student data from programs run on the network.

An older Apple II networking system used 6-pin data cables (I've seen the abandoned cables in a building, but not the complete system) to connect to a file server, and store a database of careers / job employment opportunities. It was also available on floppy disks, but needed a stack of something like 30-50 floppies in a huge binder.

  • Network file servers is a good example. I'm sure NetWare servers for PC's also required HDD's. Can you add the approximate timeframe/year that these Apple ][ systems were prevalent in education to your answer? – Brian H Aug 13 at 22:12

I remember in the 1980's that if you wanted to run MS_dos, or MS_Windows you would need a hard disk.

In 1985 you could run AmigaDos (A multi-tasking windowing system) from a single floppy. Of from 1999 you could run QNX, A Unix system, with processes, windowing system, web-browser, internet dialer, etc, from one floppy.

But if you wanted to run MS dos and MS Windows, then that was a around 10 disks (I have tried to find out, but the stuff I have found says 3 disks for dos, I saw the stack, it was more than that. There was two stacks of disks. A small stack (around 4 or 5), and a large stack, nearly twice the size, one was MS_dos, the other MS_Windows.

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    MS-DOS, even the last versions, ran quite nicely off floppies – Brian Knoblauch Aug 9 at 19:50
  • @BrianKnoblauch - see my comment on traal's answer: DOS 6.x didn't officially support systems without a hard disk, as it was bundled with an automatic setup process that expected a hard disk to be present. You could abort the setup and just use the installation disks to create a standard bootable floppy, but this wasn't an officially supported process any more. I believe DOS 5 was the last DOS version to officially support generating bootable floppies from the distribution disk. – Jules Aug 9 at 22:26
  • @ctrl-alt-delor - 10 disks is correct for the last fully 16-bit systems: DOS 6.x came on 3 floppies; Windows 3.1 was on 7 floppies. Earlier versions, obviously, were smaller. I had DOS 4.01 and Windows 1.04 on a pair of 5 1/4" HD disks, and I don't believe either of the disks were full. And later versions used more disks (although by then CD was becoming more popular...). I recall installing Windows 95 from floppies once -- I think that had around 15-20 disks (?). – Jules Aug 9 at 22:29
  • I remember doing a demo of a 1987 Amiga 512k-ROM + almost empty DD-floppy (that is a total of less that one HD floppy, as used on the PC). I hid it under desk, except monitor and mouse. I did it in 1995. People thought is was, the soon to be released, Windows 95. When they saw Windows 95 they were disappointed. They wanted the thing from the demo back. The Amiga did everything that Windows 95 did, but better, and with less RAM, less disk, and slower CPU clock. – ctrl-alt-delor Aug 10 at 10:00
  • @ctrl-alt-delor - I know what you mean. I remember the same disappointment ... Win95 (or "Chicago") was built up for years beforehand in the press: it was going to be new, revolutionary, solve every problem, etc. OK, so it added the Win32 API (although you could already install win32s on Windows 3.1 if you needed 32-bit applications), but really at the end of the day, from my perspective at least, its most user visible change was to steal a few interface improvements from RiscOS. :) – Jules Aug 10 at 10:43

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