Back in January, I wrote about the introduction of the U3 USB flash-drive technology by SanDisk and M-Systems (see "U3 Standard to Boost Flash Drives' Mobility and Security"). The goal for U3 was to provide a standardized USB application platform and API set for running applications and secure data on USB flash drives. In that column, I pointed out that U3 offered an interesting way to get the most from the now-ubiquitous USB flash-drive storage. I also expressed concern about how U3 USB drives would be secured. It's almost 1 year later, and a lot has been happening with the U3 technology--developments that could eventually make U3 smart drives a viable technology for enabling portable business applications--that is, if U3 drives can be adequately secured.

A visit to the U3 Web site leads me to believe that growing numbers of vendors are supporting U3 and are steadily releasing U3 smart drives and applications for them. More than a half dozen hardware vendors actively support the U3 standard and offer products with drive capacities up to 4GB. More interesting than the increasing hardware support, though, is the variety of software applications that are starting to appear, often shipping preinstalled on U3 smart drives. Assorted applications are becoming available, and you can find many of these apps as free or inexpensive downloads on the U3 Web site or as trial versions via links to the U3 site.

Although the number of available U3 applications isn't huge yet, users can choose from a decent selection of applications that fit well with the way they use USB flash-memory devices. A cross-section of currently available U3 applications includes tools to secure data stored on smart drives, email-synchronization tools, media players, Web browsers, and IM clients. The key point is that none of the applications must be installed on a host computer to run; they can all be executed directly from the flash drive.

Portable Drives, Portable Applications
If data and applications on U3 smart drives can be reliably secured, such drives offer some attractive possibilities for corporate IT use. A U3 drive could contain, for example, all your preferences for the Microsoft Office application suite, along with an application that handles secure identity management plus necessary user data files. When you arrive at work, popping that USB device into the computer conceivably could automatically configure the system for your preferences by using applications and data stored on the smart drive. That same concept could easily apply to traveling workers who use computers in hotel business centers or Internet cafes, letting them always have what U3 calls their "personal workspace" with them at all times.

What inspired this column was an announcement that the Skype Internet telephony application was now available for the U3 platform. This means that you can install Skype on a U3 device and communicate via the Skype network with any Skype user without installing Skype on your computer. Although Skype seems an obvious type of application for U3 technology, it brought to mind the types of storage and applications traveling users need. Email applications, VPN clients, data-backup tools, and identity-management applications are all examples of applications that should be available to users with easily portable storage.

The potential for flexible user tools that can be provided via U3 storage seems very broad, but I still have concerns about the security of the model in general. What I'd like to see are tools that integrate with storage-management and authentication technologies that are used within current corporate environments. Security applications that can provide this level of security for U3 devices will soon be available, according to information on the U3 Web site. But until these tools are in place, the usability of these storage devices in the corporate environment is still problematic.