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Standards effort could improve USB flash drives

U3 project envisions better USB flash drives in new applications for productivity, gaming and even health care.

Who needs to carry a laptop, when you can store all of your data and applications on a pocket-size USB flash drive? Two companies are launching an effort to answer that question this week.

M-Systems and SanDisk on Friday launched an effort the two companies say will define new hardware and software specifications for USB (Universal Serial Bus) flash drives, the tiny storage devices used by many consumers to plug into a PC's USB port to back up files or shuttle them between devices. The new specifications would create a standard method for allowing the drives to host applications and data. The companies announced the effort, dubbed U3, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Despite USB flash drives' huge popularity, M-Systems and SanDisk argue the drives are limited by the lack of a common method for working with applications. The drives can all store data, but one software company can't, say, create a single application that will launch from all flash drives, the companies said. However, they say their U3 effort will let the drives expand their role as strict data storage vessels into hosting applications and data, such as Internet access or gaming software or encrypted medical records, which can then be used on any PC.

Thus the companies created the U3 Limited Liability Co., headquartered in Redwood City, Calif., which will promote its U3 USB flash drive hardware specification for hardware makers and application program interfaces (APIs) for software developers as standards on which drive manufacturers and software companies can base new products.

This U3 platform, as the companies call it, will make it possible for software makers to create portable applications that can be kept on and launched from a U3 flash drive when it's connected to any PC. U3 also includes is own desktop interface, Launch Pad, to help streamline viewing, launching, downloading and managing all U3 applications stored on a U3 device, the companies said.

"U3 creates a new, open, standard platform that will take USB flash drives from the simple storage devices they are today to portable devices that are empowered by rich applications, harnessing the creative energy of a multitude of independent developers," SanDisk CEO Eli Harari said in a statement.

M-Systems and SanDisk, which first announced a strategic collaboration agreement and patent swap related to U3 last September, said they expect the first U3 products to come out by summer.

Over time, the companies expect U3 to lead to flash vendors bundling applications with their drives to target specific market segments, such as health care, gaming and business productivity. Announced this week, MedicAlert's Personal HealthKey flash storage device--designed to store medical records--is one example of what a future U3 device could look like.

Following the unveiling of U3 at CES, a number of companies announced support for the effort.

ICQ said it is developing a portable version of its ICQ messaging service for U3 drives, while security company McAfee said it will support U3 drives with its virus scanning and personal firewall software.