USB Flash memory thumb drives (UFDs) are neat and useful gizmos for storing up to 4GB of data. They are now also being delivered with small applications on them. Initially these were simple e-mail clients. This meant you could slip the thumb drive into someone else's network-connected PC or notebok and work on your e-mail with your e-mail software but using the temporary host machine's resources. Great; it's like being a temporary squatter in somebody else's system.
The application capablities of UFDs have been steadily increasing. NCD of Morocco has been shipping its Pocket Desktop application since late last year. Like a software Swiss Army knife, it offers to anybody who owns a USB thumb drive a complete, secure, mobile and independant computer software desktop, with more than 20 full software applications, dependent on the UFD capacity. A demo version is available from the web site.
With Pocket Desktop you can look at your emails anywhere in the world, receive and send as many emails you want, and navigate through the web. It doesn't leave any trace of its use on the computer your USB key was plugged in. And it offers a complete office suite with spreadsheet, text processing
Mehdi and Réda Belkhayat, the founders of NCD, believe that, "it means we can think about computers in a very new way: The way of independance from a computer and its applications. Now, you can go anywere you want with your data and applications in your pocket" In efect the host PC becomes a very thin client; ironic as an original thin client company, NCD, has gone away with the Moroccan company NCD ressurecting its name.
It is not alone, Sandisk sent it an enquiry about Pocket Desktop a month or so ago, asking for product details and saying it wanted to see if there was a business opportunity. NCD replied with information and, just a few days ago, Sandisk and M-Systems founded U3 to take 'USB Flash Drives (UFD) to the next level by making them the ultimate portable solution for storing data and launching applications.'
Sandisk's marketing manager, Mike Morganstern denies there was anything untoward going on; "The main reason for asking (NCD) for the information was to see if this product would compliment the U3 platform....SanDisk and M-systems have been working on U3 for about 1.5-2 years prior to the announcement at CES in Las Vegas. We really believe this technology will revolutionize the USB flash drive usage model and will provide more features to the end user. Our focus is on the hardware side of the business."
U3's idea is to create a new platform for developers. Obviously it is a proprietary platform - why start up a company otherwise. It wants to provide a common UFD hardware and software platform. That requires other UFD manufacturers to sign up for it. Sample target applications are a firewall, a password manager, Internet access, and e-mail synchronisation.
The U3 product will be based on a hardware specification and software APIs. The idea is to provide a 3-tier platform consisting of:-
- U3 Launchpad — a user-friendly graphical user interface used by both developers and end-users to access and run applications.
- U3 Software Developer Kit — this includes sample code, a standard set of Application Programming Interfaces, and thorough documentation.
- U3 Web Portal — where developers can publish U3-certified applications for purchase and download. The portal is accessible via the web.
The idea of host PC independence is crucial. Morganstern says, "Due to the hardware engine we are planning to implement, this product will NOT be dependant upon the host for anything. The whole idea is to have the USB Flash drive act as a sub-system on the PC, ensuring a complete security solution. All information is contained in the device therefore leaving no traces of the activites on the host PC."
What is not clear is how UFD devices can store applications that run on a host PC without needing to be installed in the Windows sense. Software such as Office 2003, Quark, PhotoShop and many. many others needs to be installed on a Windows PC before it can run. Is it meant to be the case that a user could have a version of PhotoShop on a UFD which can run in any PC without PhotoShop having to be officialy installed om that PC?
Running 'client' software like e-mail clients is OK. But what about running full-blown PC applications? We suspect not and consider that only 'portable' applications can run, ones not requiring full-blown PC installation.
Securing host PCs
Owners of potential host PCs may not be sanguine about this. Who knows what damage or discovery of sensitive data UFD applications could do? In a feature on stealing data via USB drives we mentioned Dynacom software that can control USB drive access.
Prominent amongst U3 supporters were anti-virus companies like CheckPoint and MacAfee. This is hopeful from a security point of view.