Digital World: Portability for you, me and them

If portability is the question when it comes to physical transport of data, USB flash drives are the answer.

By DAVID SHAMAH
August 8, 2006 09:27
usb flash clips 88

usb flash clips 88. (photo credit: )

 
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They're small and sleek, slip into a pocket when you're on the move and are lots easier to protect and preserve than the floppy disks they replace. If portability is the question when it comes to physical transport of data, USB flash drives are the answer. How small can these things get? How about the size of your thumb (http://www.thumbdrive.com). Too big? How about a pinky- size drive that weighs less than an ounce (http://tinyurl.com/pjjex). Which raises an age old dilemma - which is bigger, the pinky or the thumb? And flash drives go beyond data transport and storage. With new U3 platform USB flash drives, you can actually take not only your favorite files, but your favorite applications with you wherever you go. Once plugged in to the inevitable USB port found on any modern Windows 2000 or XP equipped PC, your U3 automatically pops up, "leeching" services like screen display, memory and Internet connection from the "master" computer - but for all practical purposes, you're using a separate computer with no impact on your host PC's hard drive or registry. But there are U3 dissenters in the flash drive world. There are security questions (http://tinyurl.com/rfsya), hassles in removing the platform (http://tinyurl.com/ejqc6), and the possibility of SanDisk, the principle promoter of U3, turning into the Microsoft of portable flash drive computing, especially with the company's acquisition last week of M-Systems (http://tinyurl.com/kdtvg), the only company in the flash memory market that might ever have posed a serious threat to SanDisk's dominance in this market. But even those who complain (some would say nitpick) at U3's alleged shortcoming appreciate the idea of carrying their PC on a keychain. And so, parallel to U3 (actually, somewhat preceding it), there has evolved another "platform" - one that entails re-encoding or otherwise manipulating popular software packages (usually open source) into portable editions suitable for use on flash memory drives. The chief promoters of this setup can be found at http://portableapps.com. They provide, among other things, a portable application suite (we'll call this kind of USB flash drive setup "portable apps" to differentiate it from the U3 platform) consisting of Portable Firefox (web browser), Portable Thunderbird (email client), Portable OpenOffice.org (office suite), Portable AbiWord (word processor), Portable NVU (web editor), Portable Sunbird (calendar & task list), Portable FileZilla (FTP client), and Portable Gaim (instant messenger). And all this, says the site, will fit onto a 256 MB flash memory drive with room to spare for documents (http://portableapps.com/suite.) The advantage of non-U3 based portable apps is that they can be used on a non-U3 flash memory drive, of course. Since U3 is a proprietary platform, there's no easy way to install it into your garden variety USB flash drive (you could sign up as a U3 developer at http://u3.com/developers/default.aspx and download a deployment kit). But you don't need to install anything in order to use a portable Firefox or Thunderbird - other than the application itself, of course. If you wish to take the portable app plunge yourself, http://tinyurl.com/8n3rg has 143 such programs available, along with complete instructions on how to prepare your drive and install the apps. In fact, there is even an application for portable-app equipped USB drives strikingly similar to the U3 launcher, called Pstart (http://www.pegtop.de/start) - the difference being that while the U3 Launcher runs from the USB drive, Pstart gets installed on your hard drive, automatically sensing when you plug your portable into the computer's USB port and loading shortcuts to the flash drive's portable apps. Portable apps, like U3 platform devices, claim to leave no traces of activity on a host computer's hard drive. Note that this does not mean that use of drives like these are undetectable; there are a bunch of tricks a savvy system administrator could implement - like recording system activity with Windows' Performance Monitor or installing a keystroke recorder, which could rat out users who prefer to keep their computing activities under the radar. In that sense, both U3 and non-U3 portable devices offer the same advantages or disadvantages. In fact, despite the hype, there are actually many similarities between U3 and non-U3 portable devices - so much so that portable apps can generally be used on U3 devices (I haven't been able to determine yet if the opposite is true). So what's the big deal about U3? Is U3 the real thing or just hype? It seems to me that your attitude to the brewing "struggle" between the approaches will be based on your attitude regarding the ubiquity of Microsoft Office, or the "benighted attitude" most corporations have to "alternative" OS's like Linux, or "why buy software when there really is an open source application for every need?" Personally, I subscribe to some of these points of view myself but that's because I have a modicum of computer knowledge and experience. That makes me (and you, too, if you hold these positions, as well), far different - dare I say more technically sophisticated - than the average user. I don't mean that as a put-down of non-techies, or as a compliment to myself - but I don't see casual Windows users setting up a USB flash drive with portable OpenOffice. In fact, most casual Windows users wouldn't use - and may even be afraid of - OpenOffice, believing that their OO documents will not be compatible with "real" Office. Most users - even casual ones - can see the value in portable USB computing, but as any computer help desk veteran can tell you, there is a technical threshold that such users will not go beyond, even if they can improve productivity and save oodles of money and time. This is certainly one reason why Linux is still an outsider in many corporate offices; the first thing many sysadmins will tell you is that they personally like Linux and can see how it would benefit their companies but they fear they will end up spending all their time teaching users the charm of Gnome or KDE, leaving them working overtime doing the actual backup, maintenance and other "real" tasks they were to do. Prove my case, you say? Okay. Note how most of the applications developed for portable app purposes (as listed at http://portableapps.com) are open source applications- and you can't buy programs for portable app USBs because all the miniaturization/repackaging of even commercial programs is being done by a cadre of volunteers. Compare that to the selections at U3 Software Central (http://software.u3.com), where some programs are free but many cost money with versions having been developed by their manufacturers specifically for the U3 platform. On which site do you think a portable version of MS Word, if such a thing is ever developed, will feel more comfortable? Exactly. If USB flash drives as platform are ever to take off in a big way (something it doubtlessly has the potential to do), it needs ease of use, big pockets and corporate acceptability - exactly the things that separate U3 from portable apps. To you and me it's hype, but to the average user it's the push they need to go portable. ds@newzgeek.com

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