I spend a lot of my time in eWEEK Labs looking at portable computing devices. Recently, though, Ive been playing with a U3 "smart drive," which enables users to leave their laptops at home.
Created by the company of the same name, U3 is a platform that allows software developers to build key-based applications for flash drives.
Traditional flash drives allow users to carry around and access files; those files are dependent on applications residing on a host machine. A U3 drive is essentially a flash drive that you can run a compatible application directly off of.
SanDisk, Memorex, Verbatim and Kingston, among others, support the U3 smart drive platform. (U3 actually introduced the platform more than a year ago, but the drives are just coming to market now.)
U3-based drives started shipping Oct. 15. Pricing is about $100 for a 1GB drive. The U3 drives are compatible only with Windows 2000 and Windows XP at this time.
Ive been using a 512MB SanDisk Cruzer Micro and a 1GB Verbatim Store n Go U3 Smart Drive for a couple of weeks now. So far, Ive been pretty satisfied with the experience.
After the U3 smart drive is plugged into a USB port, the drive is automatically recognized by Windows, and I can launch U3-enabled applications. When I eject the USB drive, my footprint disappears, and I take my data with me.
All U3 drives work in the same fashion, but drive manufacturers install their own applications onto the drives. For example, the Verbatim drive has anti-virus software from McAfee, while the Mini TravelDrive from Memorex comes with the Thunderbird e-mail client.
Not all the applications are available yet, but you can get a good idea of whats to come—like the Firefox browser—from the U3 Web site.
One application I like is Dmailer Sync, which allowed me to synchronize, backup and restore all my personal files and Outlook data. With Dmailer Sync, I could also send e-mail from the drive even if the host machine didnt have Outlook installed.
Its hard to imagine road warriors leaving their laptops behind only to search for a desktop at every stop, but I can see the drive allowing many users to leave their computers at home.
The smart drive becomes even more compelling when you think about productivity software. While its easy to get access to a public terminal these days, not all of them have productivity software such as Microsoft Office applications installed. And even if they do, they may not run the same version of the software, which could result in compatibility issues.
All this would change if, for example, Microsoft were to offer Office support for U3 smart drives. IT managers could purchase licenses for each individual user rather than each individual machine, ensuring that users would always have access to Microsoft Word regardless of the PC theyre using.
This would enable enterprises to set up terminals for visiting employees who could work off their smart drives without interruption, or allow organizations to provide public terminals without having to worry about deleting the profiles left by random users.
Of course, IT managers will need to think about security issues. While the drive can be protected by passwords and TrendMicro anti-virus software is available, there are bound to be IT managers who dont like the idea of people plugging their own drives into corporate systems.
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at email@example.com.