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USB flash drives continue evolution

Cool Tools on a stick

It's fun to watch the continuing evolution of the USB flash drive from just a storage device to a must-have system that could eventually replace a notebook.

It's not that far a stretch. USB drives can store all your data - the next big step is putting all your applications on them. Once that happens, you just need a dumb terminal with a PC, monitor and keyboard to get your work done.

The "run your applications on a USB drive" movement is being touted by several vendors - Lexar Media, for example, promotes the Ceedo platform (www.ceedo.com) and says it has more than 1,000 applications that can run on its PowerToGo platform, which happens to run on Lexar USB drives. Similarly, the U3 platform (www.u3.com) offers several applications that can run off its platform, including several security utilities, Web browsers and email systems.

Lexar says it will soon offer a program called InstallAnything that lets users take any application they own and put it on a USB drive (as long as it supports PowerToGo, such as the Lexar JumpDrive Lightning). I'm a bit skeptical about "any application," but this could be huge if you could take an application such as Photoshop, Quicken or some games, and run them off a USB drive instead of a PC.

Stick it to 'em

Most of the current applications available are programs that have nothing to lose by being on a portable device - such as Firefox Web browser, Google Toolbar, Winamp music player and Skype. These applications are great for users who are willing to go beyond the normal applications they use. For example, ParetoLogic says its XoftspyT Portable Anti-Spyware software (US$14.95) operates directly from a U3-compatible flash drive. The product is licensed for multiple computers and built to protect roaming users accessing any PC. Besides protecting the host computer, the software protects the flash drive by securing data and programs.

Vonage's recently released V-Phone device gives you a phone number and Internet voice application that doesn't run off the PC it's connected to but off the USB drive itself.

Vendors also are bundling software on USB drives. Imation, for example, is putting a Su doku game on its new Clip Flash Drives (512MB capacity, $35).

The USB drive these days is not only being touted for storage but also for the applications that are stored on them. We're really not that far away from individual devices that run specific applications (with enough space left over for data). Paint Shop Pro on a Stick? Not that far-fetched.

These applications and ideas are nice, but until the 800-pound gorilla (aka Microsoft) does something, the market might not move as quickly as USB drive vendors would like. While it would be nice to run all my Office applications off the USB drive instead of lugging around a notebook, Microsoft (and other major vendors) are probably worried about things such as copying issues and licensing. Until they can be convinced that putting their software on a USB drive is better than installing it on a PC, they'll stick to the sidelines.

That's too bad, because having all of your data and applications on a portable drive would get us closer to a truly mobile computing world.

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