From humble origins as geeky novelties, thumb-size U.S.B. flash drives have grown into a billion-dollar market.
More than 54 million of them were sold worldwide last year, up from less than 2 million in 2001, according to the research firm Gartner Dataquest. Sales are expected to top 100 million in 2006.
The flash drive – also known as a keychain drive, pen drive or memory key – is basically a flash memory card (the type used with digital cameras) that connects to any computer with a universal serial bus port.
What sets flash drives apart from conventional hard drives is their lack of moving parts, which makes them durable, not to mention silent. Flash-based memory also consumes little power, which is especially important for mobile gadgets like cellphones and organizers. Flash-based memory now runs in the background on devices ranging from video game consoles and set-top television boxes to digital cameras and inkjet printers.
Flash memory was developed by Toshiba in the 1980′s. The name was coined by Toshiba in 1984 to emphasize how quickly the cards can write and erase data. It is also a bit easier on the ears than “simultaneously erasable EEPROM,” which was the technology’s working name.
Flash is a form of nonvolatile memory, meaning it retains data even after power has been turned off (unlike a computer’s random-access memory). Previous versions of nonvolatile memory existed, but they could be written to only once. Flash memory, however, can be rewritten any number of times, and its speed comes from the fact that it writes and erases data in chunks, instead of byte by byte.
The first flash memory standard, Compact Flash, was introduced by SanDisk in 1994 and is still in use. That card contained four megabytes of storage; today various manufacturers offer Compact Flash cards of four gigabytes and more. Compact Flash has since been joined by other formats, including Secure Digital, SmartMedia, MultiMedia Card and Memory Stick.
But U.S.B. flash drives really took off only when U.S.B. ports became standard issue on computers. And the U.S.B. 2.0 standard, introduced in 2001, meant data could be transferred 40 times faster than with the original U.S.B (480 megabits per second versus 12), which made flash drives a viable alternative to burning a CD.
Another thing flash drives have going for them is price: a generic one-gigabyte drive can be had for under $100, about a dime per megabyte. “These things are becoming commoditized,” said Joseph Unsworth, an analyst with Gartner. “The price is declining tremendously.”
That is great news for the consumer, but those shrinking margins mean manufacturers have to find other ways to shine. Mr. Unsworth foresees a two-track future for U.S.B. flash drives, with one segment of the market occupied by “very simple, very cheap, very dumb” drives intended solely for transferring data, and the other occupied by drives that try to pack extra punch.
The easiest way to do so is by changing a drive’s appearance, which accounts for the dizzying array of flash drives shaped like ducks, cats, beetles or sushi. A more substantive approach is to offer extra features, like an LCD screen or an MP3 player; flash drives also double as voice recorders, radios and Wi-Fi adapters.
But perhaps the most promising development involves loading the drives with smart software. Some automobiles, for example, come with U.S.B.-friendly audio systems, but Mr. Unsworth sees in the pipeline a flash drive that “runs all your car’s diagnostics and stores it” so mechanics will be able to “pull up the entire history of your car, and all the work that’s been performed on it.”
Flash drives, Mr. Unsworth said, may even become the preferred way of delivering new software. A drive could come preloaded with, say, a photo-editing software suite and ample space to store photos. Likewise, a banking-oriented drive could contain all your monthly statements, bills and passwords. “All the information would be on your U.S.B. drive,” Mr. Unsworth said, “and you wouldn’t have to plug in your credit card information all the time.”
To get this ball rolling, two major companies in the industry, SanDisk and M-Systems, unveiled last month a standard called U3, with the goal of using U.S.B. flash drives as a way of making software mobile. “It’s about moving not just the data,” said Kate Purmal, chief executive of U3, the company set up to promote the platform, “but also the applications, including all the personal settings that you have, and using them on any machine.”
U3 will focus on Windows-based systems. Ms. Purmal said SanDisk and M-Systems would begin shipping the first U3-compliant flash drives with preinstalled software this summer.
(Originally published in The New York Times in February 2005)