USB Flash Drives: The Future of Storage

Technology can be a wondrous thing, expanding in terms of power and affordability at breakneck speed. Sure, this means that the computer you bought 5 years ago is probably about as useful as a Betamax player. It also means that a system with 4 times the power will cost you half as much as your last computer. This same principle applies to the USB flash drive, a relatively new invention that was first sold in 2001 as a humble 8Mb storage device. Their memory capacity continues to rise while their prices keep dropping. Today a 64 Gigabyte flash drive is not unheard of, and smaller drives can be bought for less than what a stack of blank CD’s might cost.

Flash drives have yet to be given a universally accepted name. I personally enjoy a bit of sophomoric humor when I hear them referred to as “dongles”. The list of synonyms for this bit of technology is rather lengthy, so I’m just going to list notable few: memory key, data stick , data key, flash drive, flash disk, thumb drive, USB drive, and jump drive. Some of the more absurd names include nerd bling and geek whistle, the latter referring to one that is worn around the neck, in the same manner as a coach’s whistle.

Unlike other forms of media, the flash drive’s appearance is as varied as the day is long. For example, they have taken the form of wristwatches, teddy bears, refrigerator magnets, and pens. It is possible that no form of data storage has been as diverse in it’s appearance up to this point.

Flash drives are simultaneously less bulky and more durable than older forms of data storage, but they have their weaknesses. They are impervious to dust, oil and scratches. Some of these drives can even survive a swim with the laundry! The downside is that they have a limited lifespan. An average flash drive will usually have a lifespan of several hundred thousand data transfers, and when they start to get old, data transfer rates become slower. Flash drives are typically faster than CD’s, and they can be re-written 500 times more than CD/RW’s on average. While USB flash drives are most commonly used for simple data transfer, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as uses for them are concerned.

Some software companies are including flash drives with their products as an anti-piracy measure. These USB drives contain special data that must be used in conjunction with their software product in order for it to launch. This is usually only done in the case of very expensive applications, and it makes their product more difficult to use without purchasing it legitimately.

Computer manufacturers have begun to use flash drives as security keys, controlling access to the operating system by communicating with security software on the PC. This design prevents the target machine from operating unless a “security key” flash drive is plugged into it. Sometimes these “PC lock” drives will function like normal flash drives when they are plugged into other computers.

With the advent of Web 2.0 sites, there’s an aspect of independence from our computers, but with that independence, there’s a price to pay. When you rely on websites to provide your storage and processing, you are counting on those sites to remain functional, to safely store your data, and to maintain their current terms of use.

Flash drives present a welcome alternative for computer users who are not entirely convinced of the reliability, privacy, and security of Web-based storage and software. The alternative comes in the form of “smart” flash drives that carry software or operating systems. Entire software applications can be run directly from flash drives, eliminating the need to install an application onto the computer itself. A surprisingly large number of applications can be run directly from a flash drive, including web browsers, antivirus software and 3D modeling utilities. In fact, you can store an entire operating system on one of these gadgets, and boot your computer from it!

Some USB drives have security features for those of us who feel the need to protect their data. One method prevents unauthorized people from accessing data by means of encryption. The downside is that the drives are only usable on the few computers that have the same encryption software, and there currently isn’t a widely accepted portable standard. Some newer USB drives support biometric fingerprinting, meaning that only authorized users can access the data that lies within.

With the pros far outweighing the cons, and prices that are plummeting, it’s no wonder that consumers and businesses spend more than $2 billion annually on USB flash drives worldwide, and sales are expected to increase at a rate of 15 percent per year for several years to come.

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