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USB Drives That Pack a Punch

Keep all your essential data in the palm of your hand with today's breed of flash sticks and teeny, tiny hard drives.

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I don't care what anybody says--I'm not that demanding. I just want what I want, where I want it, the way I want it. C'mon, don't you?

For example, wouldn't you like to have all your files and favorite programs with you all the time so you could work anywhere? That's been a near-universal ambition of computer users since PCs were born. (Last millennium, I paid $1,795 to achieve it. Unfortunately, my DOS-based Osborne portable weighed 25 pounds and held only 91KB of data per floppy--not exactly the ultimate work-anywhere solution.)

Over the years, we've tried lighter portables, higher-capacity media, cable transfers, remote-control programs and websites. They get the job done, yet we can still forget or accidentally overwrite files when moving between desktops. But a consortium of flash storage and software companies has come up with an approach that might finally make moving your workspace a real no-brainer.

U3 is a Windows software layer/environment that turns tiny-but-spacious USB flash sticks into "smart" drives capable of holding programs and data. Instead of hauling a portable around or having to think when syncing, you store all your most-used files and programs on one of these key chain hangers-on. That includes the latest versions of macros, bookmarks, e-mail and other changing elements of your desktop.

"You don't need to take a computer with you because there are computers with USB ports everywhere you go now," reasons Ed Cuellar, director of marketing for SanDisk.

His company and fellow flash manufacturer M-Systems put the U3 Alliance together 18 months ago. In October, U3 Alliance members began shipping smart versions of their 256MB to 2GB flash drives (see "Stick of the Litter" on page 70). So far, 512MB drives sell best--primarily because most are under $50, explains Cuellar.

Expect 1GB versions to take over that price point early next year, says Allen Gharapetian, vice president of marketing at Memorex. At the same time, you'll also find U3 versions of external hard drives using those teeny, tiny platters. In addition to its U3 flash drives, Memorex will launch a U3 version of its Mega TravelDrive next quarter, a 4GB hard drive the size of a thick match-book. Says Gharapetian, "We plan to convert everything we can to U3."

Why Not DIY?

I know what you're thinking: Why not just copy your PC programs to a USB flash or hard drive?

Because it's illegal. Adobe, Microsoft and other members of the Business Software Alliance get medieval on any business they find without a separate license for every program on disk.

The U3 environment puts you on the right side of licensing and digital rights agreements, and many smart drives are already populated with U3-compliant programs like Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, Skype and Trillian communications programs, or file managers like PowerHouse Technologies' Migo . This tiny utility easily synchronizes your workspace between a smart drive and a host PC, a popular theme among U3 programs. For example, BeInSync Pro will synchronize several PCs over the internet, and for backup, Kadena Systems' PocketCache+ takes a snapshot of a drive's contents with a mouse click.

U3 is still just getting off the ground, though, and noticeably absent from its program directory is Microsoft. Several programs like Imagine LAN's P.I. Protector try to fill that vacuum by making it easy to use Microsoft Outlook components with U3 drives, since any Windows application on a PC host is able to access files on a smart drive.

The really important piece on all U3 drives is a Windows Start Menu-like environment called Launchpad. It's very slick and very quick. Launchpad requires only 6MB of space, and not one more brain synapse than Windows does. It lets you use the resources of a host PC without changing them; when you unplug your smart drive, you take all traces of yourself--settings, cookies, bookmarks--with you.

Speaking of Security

That characteristic suggests smart drives might also be a solution to our growing security problems--which mobility only complicates. Portables get lost and stolen at an alarming rate, and we're fast approaching the day when software-only security solutions won't be enough, even for office desktops.

Smart drives let you maintain your own super-secure space inside whatever PC or network you join. They are just the kind of hardware tokens increasingly required for access to banks, networks and other protected systems. It's not U3-compatible, but FingerGear's Bio Computer-on-a-Stick, with its fingerprint scanner and AES data encryption, might be the biometric role model of the future.

Smart drives may not be the ultimate answer, but they get us closer to it than we've ever been. They're cheap, easy to use, and make great stocking stuffers, too.

Stick of the Litter

All smart drives include the U3 Launchpad; some include additional programs. Drives and software are found on the U3 website.

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.