The Evolution of the Sneaker Net

Since I got my new netbook, I’ve been thinking a lot about the somewhat cyclical nature of computing. Today, I was thinking about the fact that, when computers first started out, the majority of peripherals were external devices. Then, towers got larger, components got smaller and everyone started packing all kinds of internal peripheral devices into their computers. At one point in time, it looked almost as though external peripherals (optical drives, hard drives, disk drives, modems, equalizers and all kinds of other crazy stuff) would disappear forever.

Then came USB, and we started bringing external peripherals back. With the proliferation of broadband, modems became almost exclusively external devices. When USB drives came along, we all started using them for all kinds of things. Then, netbooks (and eventually tablets) came along, and there was once again no room for any kinds of internal devices; so everything became external again.

One thing that’s remained somewhat constant, though, is what’s known as a “sneakernet”. For those of you that don’t know, that basically means that you use your feet (your sneakers) to transfer files from one computer to another.

Although we’ve had networking capabilities for almost as long as we’ve had computers, the sneakernet has been an important element of computing all along. It has evolved quite a bit; but the principle remains the same.

When computers first came along, punch cards were used to transfer programs and information between computers. Then, floppy disks came out, and lasted for a long time. Many of us thought floppy drives would last forever (after all, how in the world would you boot a computer with a faulty hard drive if you didn’t have a floppy drive). We had 8″ floppies, 5-1/4″ floppies, 3.5″ floppies, Zip disks and more.

Eventually, though, optical drives overtook floppy drives. First we had CDs, then DVDs and now Blu-Ray is even trying to poke its head into things (though I don’t think it has caught on nearly as much as CDs or DVDs, and it probably never will). Once again, many of us were certain that, from here on out, computers would always have an optical drive of some sort. After all, how would we install software that’s 1, 5, 10 or even 20 gigabytes?

The answer didn’t take too long to appear, and it was revolutionary. The advent of thumb drives changed everything once again. Computers no longer needed optical drives as long as they had USB support; so many computers started to drop support for native optical drives.

Through all of these changes, though, one thing remained. Although we have the capability to transfer files from one computer to another using our networking capabilities; sometimes it’s simply faster and easier to transfer them onto a portable storage medium and carry them from one machine to the other.

Today I decided to install some software on my netbook. Since it doesn’t have an optical drive; I couldn’t simply pop the installation CD or DVD into my computer. Instead, I had two choices.

I could either copy the files from the CD or DVD onto my thumb drive and carry it over to my netbook; or I could try to transfer the files over my network. After performing some testing, I found that the transfer speed was fairly equal between the two methods; but my network connection would flake out occasionally. The thumb drive, though, worked consistently.

Do you envision a day when the sneakernet disappears entirely? Will we always need the ability to manually transfer files between machines, or will we eventually see a day when all file transfers occur over the Internet?