USB drives go beyond storage

/ Source: Forbes

Someone I was talking to the other day said he wanted to send me a computer file on a floppy disk. My response was to suppress--barely--a little laugh.

It's been a few years since a floppy disk has crossed this desk. I bought a floppy drive within the last year or so, primarily to back up the contents of some very old floppies I had to the hard drive of my Apple PowerMac. Since then this little floppy drive has sat unused on my desktop.

I explained to this friend of the floppy that his data medium of choice has essentially fallen by the wayside. He could be forgiven for being a tad surprised. But what I couldn't understand is how this guy who was otherwise supposedly technologically awake and aware could have missed the rise of the USB thumb drive.

They're everywhere these days. Plug one into the USB port of a PC running Microsoft's Windows or a Mac and you can take your crucial files with you in a pocket or on a keychain.

I've been using them ever since M-Systems first introduced them a few years back. More recently I've been using drives from Iomega, SanDisk and Lexar Media to carry files between home and the office.

But they're starting to evolve beyond just file storage. Last month a new company called U3, which is actually a joint venture of M-Systems and SanDisk, said it would promote the next generation in flash drive technology.

Standards needed
Keychain drives are going beyond convenient storage. They're going to start running applications of their own. Not only will you take your PowerPoint presentation on a keychain drive, but you might take PowerPoint. Okay, I've heard this before, when Iomega released thumb drives that could run a version of OpenOffice, the open-source office productivity suite that is intended to be compatible with Microsoft's Office.

But in that case, we had only one vendor supporting open-source applications that most people aren't running. In the case of U3, the company is looking to develop a set of standards that would make USB drives as universally readable as floppies.

That's one thing I do miss about floppy disks. You knew what you were getting, and you knew that as long as it wasn't damaged, it would work. USB drives have generally been universally compatible with both Windows and the Mac OS, but sometimes they're not.

The plan calls for both M-Systems and SanDisk to create an application programming interface (API) that will allow programmers to create applications that will work on any brand of USB drive.

A few companies have already endorsed the idea: McAfee, the antivirus software vendor, and Zone Labs, the consumer firewall maker that's now a unit of Check Point. Time Warner's ICQ, the popular instant messaging client, has already announced plans to develop a version of its software that will run on keychain drives.

The only problem I can see is that as useful as they are, keychain drives are easy to lose. I seem to need to replace one at least once a year. I'd hate to have to pay for several copies of the same program just because I've lost the drive it's stored on. Still, it certainly seems like a smart idea. I for one will be interested to see how the U3 venture plays out over the year, and hope to be buying more advanced drives later in the year.