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Tiny 'Smart' Drives Hold More Than Data

Those tiny "thumb" or flash drives popping up everywhere just got a little smarter.

Leading providers such as Kingston, Memorex, SanDisk and Verbatim are incorporating software from U3 that adds applications to the handy storage USB-enabled devices.

These U3-labeled smart drives include what the company calls a "personal workspace" that saves not only data and files but also software programs, user preferences and the means for managing them.

U3 unveiled its software earlier this fall. But applications such as Internet phone service Skype just became available this week. Skype is a good example of an application you might want to carry around with you because it runs off the drive. If, for example, you only have access to a public computer you can still run Skype even if the computer doesn't allow applications to be downloaded.

Individual flash drive makers decide which apps to include. "Usually there are two or three applications included, but you can get others at our website," U3 CEO Kate Purmal told internetnews.com. She said the software doesn't add to the price of the devices at retail. "Our objective is to price the platform to make it ubiquitous. We don't want any barriers to adoption."

Typically, most flash drives are used today as convenient way to carry around data files, such as word processing and spreadsheet info. Users can plug the drives into any PC or notebook with a USB connection and work with the files stored on the device.

U3 currently supports flash drives ranging in storage capacity from 256 megabytes (available for under $50) up to four 4 gigabytes. One gig flash drives retail for about $100. About the size of a stick of gum, a two gig drive can store up to 650 three-minute songs (33 hours).

U3 has a download section at its Web site where users can download free and trial versions of several U3-enabled applications. Although there are only a handful of apps today, the company said it's working on expanding the list.

Current programs include a number of photo-editing applications, the Firefox browser, the Nullsoft Winamp music player, Skype and also Trillian, which unifies the AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! Messenger and IRC instant messaging services.

Purmal said U3 is in dialogue with all the big software players about getting more applications to support U3. One way is to provide more portable versions of larger applications. Another way, for example with Microsoft Office applications, is to include user preferences and settings on the drive that Office on the desktop computer can look for. So the user gets the personalized Office apps she's used too even while using someone else's computer.

Based in Redwood City, Calif., U3, was created with backing from USB flash drive companies M-Systems and SanDisk and licenses its platform to USB drive manufacturers.

Separately, the USB Flash Drive Alliance is working on an open set of standards to, among other things, facilitate a standard application interface for flash drives.

The group's membership includes U3 supporter Kingston, along with competitors such as Lexar and PNY Technologies. Microsoft is also an associate member of the group.

"Our expectation is that anything [the USB Flash Drive Alliance] does would be complementary to what we're doing," said U3's Purmal.

But Steffen Hellmold, president of the UFDA, told internetnews.com the organization is looking to develop open standards to offer applications on USB drives rather than proprietary ones. Hellmold is also general manager of OEM products for Lexar Media.

"If it's a proprietary platform like U3 you have to package software for that platform. So as a software developer you're dealing with several code bases," said Hellmold. "The long term vision is to have an industry open platform, and let developers design for that."

He said the most immediate software issue UFDA is working on is security. He said they would like to develop levels of security starting with basic security that wouldn't add to the cost of the devices such as password protection implemented as standard.