U3's CEO Purmal talks up smart USB drives

Smart USB (Universal Serial Bus) drives based on U3's computing platform hit the market this week and will enable applications to run directly off the portable drives without relying on a host computer. SanDisk and Verbatim announced USB smart drives based on U3's platform, while software companies America Online and Mozilla ported applications to run on U3-compliant smart drives.

Formed in 2004, U3 is financially backed by SanDisk and M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers. IDG News Service spoke to U3's chief executive officer, Kate Purmal, about the smart computing platform and the future of USB smart drives.

What is the smart computing platform?

Not tying applications to a specific desktop or laptop computer, but installing them and launching them from a U3 drive so they can run anywhere, that's what smart computing is all about. It's a hardware and software platform -- there are hardware specifications and user interface software we called the Launchpad. When you plug [the smart drive] into a computer and launch an app, it first has to make sure it is running the right operating system. When you're done, it needs to shut down -- even if shutting down means a user pulling out a USB drive -- not crash, not cause data loss. Then, when it's done, it needs to remove traces of applications run from the machine. That is what's happening under the covers.

How do you expect customers to react to 'smart drives'?

We've seen unbelievable interest. People get it immediately. They start wondering why the heck they didn't install software any other way after using it. Think about it -- you are about to install applications, where would you want to install it? On a specific computer so you can only use it only on that computer? Or the flexibility to install it on a U3 smart drive and run it anywhere?

How are you explaining smart drives to consumers who don't understand technology?

When you plug in drives with 'U3 Smart' on the packaging, the first thing that comes up is a tutorial saying 'hey, you've got a U3 smart drive, click here,' and that takes you through what you can do with it. There's going to be a lot of guerilla marketing by the virtue of having software on the drive. There will be very few drives from manufacturers that ship on the high end, meaning high capacity, without U3.

How will the smart computing platform help the IT industry and consumers?

In order for a platform to take off it has to create value for everybody involved in the whole ecosystem. There is a clear value for the consumer because the consumer gets the mobility they want, the choice of where their applications are installed. They can decide whether to carry their laptop, use public computers -- it gives them a new level of mobility.

The software developer gets hundreds of millions of potential new customers, because at the single click on the Launchpad, they are bought to the store where their software is featured.

For hardware manufacturers, it creates demand for higher-capacity drives. What do you on a 1G-byte drive? Well, you can certainly store a lot of photos, but when you start loading applications, you really need the greater capacity. There's a real clear value proposition for everyone in the value chain. We're really bullish that it will take of.

When do you expect smart drives to take off?

Gartner predicts 83 million USB flash drives ship this year, 115 million next year, and by 2008 it's 150 million, of which 70 percent will be smart drives. We hope they are all U3 smart drives, but I am sure there will be different flavors by then.

What are the flavors you expect?

I don't know yet. We've seen bootable drives, which is different, but we haven't seen true U3 competitors other than the specific hardware manufacturers like Iomega that made their drive able to run a series of applications. We haven't either seen platform competitors where there's a single standard and any software developer who writes [code] ... that can run on any hardware.

Are you trying to expand the smart computing platform to other portable storage items outside USB?

Today, it's only USB flash. Tomorrow it's other portable storage. We're working on adapting [the smart computing platform] as we speak, so that the specification and the device capabilities as represented in our APIs [application program interfaces] are hardware independent. We're working on that now.

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service

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