At the 2005 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2 weeks ago, M-Systems and SanDisk announced their U3 platform for the USB flash-drive market. U3 is a hardware and software system specification that's designed to standardize the flash-drive environment to expand it beyond simple storage devices.
Although quite a few USB flash drives are in circulation, with more being sold every day (estimates for 2005 indicate as many as 70 million sold), the idea behind U3 is to provide a standardized USB application platform and API set. The U3 specification contains a standard Launch Pad desktop UI that will let a user store, launch, manage, and view data and applications on the flash drive. The U3 standard also includes an API set that developers will be able to use to build applications that capitalize on U3's mobility and security features.
The primary benefit that U3 promises to provide is a standard technology for "mobilizing" applications. Vendors and corporate developers will be able to build applications that launch and run directly from a USB flash drive. Theoretically, a user's entire workspace could be on a single flash drive. When the user attaches the drive to a PC, that computer could give them access to their normal work environment.
On a smaller scale, U3-enabled flash drives will be able to become a standard application-delivery platform. The U3 API set will give developers all sorts of tricks they can do to provide secure application delivery, thereby protecting their own work and assuring that the applications they deliver are virus-free and licensed to the end user.
The current U3 offering (which is available at http://u3.com) consists of the U3 Launch Pad--the GUI for accessing the applications stored on the drive; the U3 software development kit (SDK)--the API set and documentation; and the U3 Web Portal, which will be a location where developers can publish their certified applications for download and purchase.
An interesting group of vendors announced support for the U3 standard at CES, among them Microsoft, McAfee, Zone Labs, Check Point Software Technologies, the Mozilla Foundation, and the MedicAlert Foundation. U3-enabled flash devices are expected to start shipping by mid-2005.
Because U3 has the potential to affect both vertical-market applications and standard business apps, the standard might be just what's needed to increase the comfort level of corporate IT about the prevalence of flash-disk devices in their enterprise. Part of the U3 standard deals with the security of device data and the ability to manage the devices, so it's likely that management tools for attached USB flash drives will also start to appear on the market.
As the capacity of USB flash drives continues to increase, it's easily conceivable that users will eventually be able to carry their entire working environment around with them, beyond just having their applications available to them from any PC. Although such capability poses a security risk to corporate data, the flip side of this risk is that replacing a failed computer will simply be a matter of swapping the USB device to a new home. Many benefits are possible from a usable, secure USB flash drive. Nevertheless, the industry will need to address and clearly define the security and management aspects of U3 technology before it's ready to expand into the broad corporate marketplace.