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USB drives to get smarter

SanDisk and M-Systems back an initiative that could further blur the line between consumer electronics devices and storage. Photo: How smart is that drive?

SAN JOSE, Calif.--It may have been a year ago, but Kate Purmal remembers well how her 9-year-old daughter made a mess of her business laptop computer. Her programs and settings had been completely turned upside down, and it took the better part of a day to fix it.

But what may have seemed like a one-day aggravation turned out to be a career-changing moment for Purmal. Intrigued by the possibilities of making it easier to recover from laptop flubs, she left her lucrative consulting business and took a job as CEO of U3, a consortium of USB (Universal Serial Bus) flash drive manufacturers bent on advancing their products beyond basic data storage.

Kate Purmal
Kate Purmal

They developed a technical specification that lets consumers carry their entire desktop, including programs and personal preferences, with them as they travel between home and office. The specification even allows users to launch software and remotely access data on any Windows XP or Windows 2000 PC.

After announcing its intentions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, the group is kicking off its inaugural U3 Global Developer Summit here with 259 attendees, including 125 software developers. Purmal said U3 now has eight hardware manufacturers and 32 software companies supporting the U3 spec, including RealNetworks, Skype, TrendMicro and the Mozilla Foundation.

"We are ushering in a new wave of 'smart drive' devices where you can carry your data and your entire workspace including passwords and user settings and plug in to any computer so you don't have to carry your laptop around," Purmal said during her keynote address here.

Consumers find the tiny drives increasingly useful to plug into a PC's USB port to back up files or shuttle them between devices. Purmal's group is looking to make it even easier.

"When consumers carry their workspace with them, what they need is more capacity," Purmal said. "This could create more product differentiation where you see different market segments targeted--the student, the road warrior, the soccer mom--with specific hardware and software bundles."

With heavy backing from the top two makers--SanDisk and M-Systems--Purmal is now cultivating a network of companies that will compete with the today's storage-oriented USB drive technology and USB Flash Drive Alliance (UFDA), whose efforts are very similar but have the backing of Lexar, Samsung and Microsoft.

M-Systems smart drive

Still, Purmal, the fifth employee at the original Palm, has some pretty influential friends herself. She said her group is also discussing its technology with Microsoft and other software companies to help ease consumer fears of downloading software.

The U3 group has created a smart-drive platform package that includes a hardware development kit, software developer kit and the U3 system software. The software has a desktop interface, or "Launchpad," which is similar in function to the Windows "Start" button.

The drivers, which are built using existing USB technologies, check to make sure the PC has enough power and space to run an application and then cleans up everything before it is disconnected from the host system. It also addresses any licensing, security and digital-rights management issues, Purmal told CNET

Smart drives appear to have a strong future. Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth predicts that by 2008, smart USB drives will represent 70 percent of all USB drives shipped and that by 2007, at least three major portable storage suppliers will partner with media content providers on using smart USB drives.