Power in a Flash

Thumb drives morph into mini-laptops

By Larry Armstrong

It has been four years since I last wrote about flash drives, those little thingies you can carry on a key chain and plug into any computer's USB port. Back then they seemed like a natural replacement for the floppy disk, a way to carry your work between home and office or from your office to a client. Now they're the ultimate marketing tchotchke, a kind of high-tech brochure handed out by sales reps hawking their wares. And they've become much more capacious: Shop carefully (if you can't snag one for free), and you can get a 1 gigabyte drive for $25 or $30. That's what you would have paid for a paltry 32 megabytes four years ago.

The enormous capacity increase is what makes flash drives worth a new look, especially for business. With all that additional storage space, you can not only carry data—your documents, PowerPoints, snapshots, music—but also the software programs you need to create, present, view, or play them. It obviously makes business travel easier, because you'll no longer have to drag a laptop along to have the applications you need to work at an airport Internet kiosk or hotel business center. But you can see how flash drives will work in the office as well.

Say you have more employees than computers, a common situation at small companies. By giving each person a flash drive, they'll have their own personalized desktops when they log on to the office computer. Each drive could hold a Web browser with customized settings, passwords, and bookmarks, along with an employee's documents and spreadsheets. If you've locked down your office network so workers can't install their own programs, flash drives let people use music players, photo organizers, or voice-over-Internet or instant messaging software without having to install them on company computers. Or maybe you don't want to buy a laptop for every employee who occasionally needs one on the road. Set up a pool of laptops outfitted with the basics. Your employees can check one out as needed using a flash drive equipped with a sync program such as DmailerSync Plus ($40). That will let them carry along contacts, e-mail, documents, and PowerPoint presentations from their office Windows PC.

Two Israeli companies, U3 and Ceedo, are trying to make it easier to bring your software onto a flash drive. U3's approach has been to come up with a specialized drive sold by SanDisk, among others. The Ceedo system has been licensed by Lexar, which calls it PowerToGo. It's bundled for free on Lexar's high-end Lightning drives; otherwise, it's $30. There are differences between the two. Most significantly, developers have to rewrite their applications for the U3 drives, while almost anything can be installed on a PowerToGo drive as long as the application is not too big.

But you may not need a special drive outfitted with U3 or PowerToGo. The amount of portable software designed to work on any flash drive, or even a CD or iPod, is steadily growing, as a quick look at PortableApps.com or portablefreeware.com will show. I wrote and sent this column on a Sony Micro Vault Tiny drive connected to a borrowed computer. I downloaded OpenOffice.org, a Microsoft Office clone; Mozilla's Firefox browser; Thunderbird e-mail software; the Foxit PDF reader; and PStart, a minuscule utility that displays and launches your programs when you plug in the drive. The best news of all: Aside from the drive, it all was free.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek SmallBiz magazine.

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