Smart USBs a headache for software licensing?

Tech Culture

The worlds of developers' fantasy and business reality clashed in San Jose this week during a presentation of smart USB devices by the U3 consortium.

For those not in the know, the idea behind a smart USB drive is that you can run your desktop and selected applications just the way you like on any Windows PC and then leave no trace of your existence once you pull the token out. In theory, people that shuffle between home, office and public PCs would see immediate benefits - or so goes the story at U3.

But what seems like a cure for road warriors and students alike could be troublesome for software vendors. Most companies like Microsoft and Intuit require an additional license for installing its software on more than a few computers. The U3 business design model could have applications like QuickBooks running on several PCs at once.

The same trouble could be applied to the digital rights management (DRM) companies who are faced with a culture that would grab large amounts of media and other files and freely run around with it to places unknown.

Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth who covers USB drives said he had similar concerns about new licensing models but he still seems optimistic that the industry will figure it out in the wash. By 2007, he predicts at least three major portable storage suppliers will partner with media content providers on using smart USB drives.

U3 CEO Kate Purmal said her group is actively talking with Microsoft and other software companies about the licensing issues. She also said that the U3 standard also has many of the DRM and usage issues worked out in the specification. It would be up to the software developers to come up with their list of permissions.

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