Students at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Wash., are getting class materials in a new way this year: on a tiny flash-memory drive that plugs into a computer's USB port.
Small enough to wear on a necklace, this "digital backpack" can hold textbooks, novels, plays, study aids, the dictionary, graphing-calculator software — almost anything, really.
Falling prices in computer memory have made these little flash drives — also called pen, thumb or key drives — into enormously powerful tools that are on the verge of changing the concept of "personal" computing.
With a gigabyte of flash memory now available for less than $100, these inexpensive digital storehouses can hold not just important data but also entire software programs. The information they carry can be encrypted and accessed speedily, a benefit of faster microprocessors.
What this all means is that computer users are no longer at the mercy of the machine that happens to be nearby. Everything we need to interact with computers — even down to the appearance of our home PC's desktop — can be carried with us and used on almost any computer.
"What's your personal computer, anyways?" computing pioneer Bill Joy said in a speech that touched on the trend at a recent conference. "Your personal computer should be something that's always on your person."
A few years ago Jay Elliot was looking for a way to help doctors move medical information securely and decided that flash memory — which has no moving parts, unlike hard-disk storage — was the perfect solution.
But as memory prices kept falling, he realized there was room for more than just data. So he invented Migo, software that lets removable storage devices such as USB drives and iPods essentially function as portable computers.
Plug a Migo-enabled device into a computer and enter your password, and a secure session launches in which you can send and receive e-mail and work on documents, with the background desktop and icons from your own PC rather than the ones on the host computer.
When you're done and remove the drive, all traces of what you did are removed from that computer. The next time you plug the drive into your home computer, data on each are synchronized.
Multiple people can share one USB device, with separate password-protected profiles for each. So when Elliot recently went on vacation, he, his wife and two sons each called up personalized desktops on a hotel computer — all through a drive smaller than a cigarette lighter.
"People are carrying very expensive devices with them, but they only use 4 or 5 percent of their capability. What a waste," said Elliot, who heads Migo's maker, PowerHouse Technologies Group Inc.
Instead, he said, the model should be that "your data goes with you, in whatever form you want it. You just find a place to use it."
Another reason this flexibility is now possible is that software makers and flash-drive manufacturers relatively recently settled on technological standards that let programs be stored and run off the tiny drives.
Two hardware vendors, SanDisk Corp. and M-Systems Inc., formed a separate company, U3 LLC, to license and facilitate that technology.
Now a spate of U3-enabled drives have hit the market, preloaded with everything from photo-management software to the Firefox Web browser and instant-messaging programs.
Skype Technologies SA's Internet phone software is also available, meaning almost any computer can be used to make free calls over Skype, even if the computer owner never bothered to download Skype.
"The next time you go to install software that's going to be locked to the hard drive, your first reaction is going to be `Man, I want this on my U3 so I can have this anywhere,'" said Kate Purmal, U3's CEO.
The only big missing element for now is Microsoft Corp. software.
Although its popular productivity programs such as Excel or Word are common on office PCs, traveling workers still might not find the programs on a home or public computer.
So the ability to launch Microsoft software from a flash drive could be a big help. Microsoft and USB companies are still discussing potential licensing arrangements. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
In the meantime, though, several new devices are emerging to take advantage of this shift in computer use.
For example, by tweaking the tiny processor in its flash drives to enable copyright protections, SanDisk created a drive called the Cruzer Freedom that lets students download reams of educational materials when they plug the device into a PC. Because each drive has a particular numeric identifier, teachers can put assignments and materials online that are accessible only to members of their classes.
That enabled Eastside Prep's new flash-drive project in Washington. Mark Bach, who heads the upper school and teaches at Eastside, plans to use the drives to disseminate primary source documents and other materials he's gathered for a unit on regional history.
As the drives' memory expands even further in coming years, he expects to augment the text with video.
"It becomes very, very malleable, and very creative on the part of the teacher, because the teacher can go beyond textbooks," he said.
For the business world, startup Realm Systems Inc. soon plans to roll out its own USB-based "mobile personal servers," with several gigabytes of memory for a few hundred dollars a pop, that could be plugged into any PC to let mobile employees do their computer-related work.
The Realm device will have a fingerprint reader to restrict access. It also clears its tracks from the host PC for privacy.
Of course, any portable storage device with significant memory, whether it's a "smart" cell phone, a digital assistant or an MP3 music player with a miniature hard drive, can do this trick of making any computer personal. That's more reason to believe the PC will soon fade into the background.
International Business Machines Corp. researcher Chandra Narayanaswami offers a good illustration of how we'll know it's happened:
When you check into an average hotel room and find — alongside the alarm clock, hair dryer and DVD player that once were bring-your-own items but now are as standard as the furniture — a cheap PC for guests to plug into, as our truly personal computing environment travels with us.