U3, partners add intelligence to USB drives

Technology startup U3 LLC on Monday is expected to announce the availability of USB (Universal Serial Bus) drives based on its smart computing platform, which allows applications to run directly off USB drives, independent of other storage devices.

Smart USB drives based on U3’s software and hardware platform will allow users to carry their entire PC in a USB drive, so that when they hook up to a PC on the road, it will have the same look and feel as their work or home PC.

USB smart drives are expected to be announced by hardware vendors including SanDisk Corp. and Verbatim Corp. at Demofall, which will be held in Huntington Beach, California, from Sept. 19 to Sept. 21. Software vendors, including America Online Inc. and Mozilla Foundation, are expected to announce products that run directly off the USB smart drives.

“U3’s concept is about taking your whole personal workspace with you, not just the data, but the files, folders, preferences, plug-ins, settings, everything you need, to make any PC feel and look and act like your own,” said Kate Purmal, chief executive officer of U3. Applications on a U3-compliant USB drive are not tied to a specific laptop or desktop, but are installed and launchable directly off the drive, Purmal said.

The ability to run applications directly off USB smart drives gives mobile users the choice of whether to work off their laptop or use a public computer, Purmal said. Users are already happy with the simplicity and portability of USB drives, she said. “You just plug them in and they work,” Purmal said.

Once a U3-compatible smart drive is plugged into a USB 2.0 port, a U3 Launchpad automatically launches, helping users run software applications from the drive, Purmal said. When the USB drive is pulled out, system software automatically shuts down applications running on the USB drive and cleans out data fragments so no personal data is left behind, Purmal said. The Launchpad also has a menu for drive management and administration as well as a link that leads users to a Web site where U3-compliant software is available, Purmal said.

The U3 system software, which makes it possible for other applications to run directly off the smart drive, takes up 6M bytes of storage and loads up in about 30 seconds after a drive is plugged in, Purmal said. Once the system software is loaded, software applications load quickly. “I haven’t see any difference between launching [software applications] from the U3 drive versus launching it from a hard drive,” she said.

It currently supports only Windows XP and Windows 2000, and a Linux version is under works, Purmal said.

Verbatim Corp. will include U3’s smart computing platform in its US$99 1G-byte Store ‘n’ Go U3 Smart Drive, which is expected to be launched at Demofall. Kingston will be launching the DataTraveler line of USB smart drives with capacities of 512M bytes and 1G-byte, which will cost $42 and $80 respectively. SanDisk Corp., which backs U3 financially along with M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers Ltd., is also expected to announce U3-compliant smart drives at Demofall.

A few big software vendors are also expected to launch U3-compatible products at Demofall. Mozilla is expected to announce U3-compliant versions of the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client. McAfee will announce an antivirus engine to protect U3 smart drives from viruses. America Online Inc. will announce a version of Winamp that will allow users to play audio and video files directly off USB smart drives.

Products already available for U3 smart drives includes Powerhouse Technologies Group Inc.’s Migo, which can synchronize office files, folders and Outlook e-mail data between a computer and a U3 smart drive. “That’s what makes it possible to leave my laptop at the office and not carry it home, I just carry my U3 [smart drive] home now,” as Migo synchronizes and sends to the smart drive all the laptop data she needs, Purmal said.

Siber Systems Inc.’s Pass2Go, which was announced in June, allows users to store Web site passwords, contacts and banking and credit card information on a USB smart drive. Skype Technologies SA has a version of its VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) product which enables users to carry their Skype account information on U3-compliant drives, allowing them to make Internet calls from around the world directly off the drive.

More companies are expected to announce U3-compliant smart drives and software in the future, Purmal said.

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