Pocketable, Reliable Plug-‘n’-Play USB Memory

Although USB is portrayed by the PC industry as a simple plug-‘n’-play method for daisy-chaining computer peripherals, the reality is that some devices stubbornly refuse to work as promised.
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(click thumbnail)Although USB is portrayed by the PC industry as a simple plug-‘n’-play method for daisy-chaining computer peripherals, the reality is that some devices stubbornly refuse to work as promised. Very often the problem is traced to conflicting USB drivers.

A leading manufacturer of USB hubs told me that conflicting drivers are the dirty little secret of USB. Each manufacturer ships a USB product with a driver that's been written and tested the company’s specific device. The meltdown comes when the driver is installed on the user's PC and is combined with the USB drivers from other manufacturers.

Wouldn't it be great if USB devices didn't need drivers? Just plug the device into the socket and, presto, it works. And wouldn't it be even better if the driverless USB device was platform-agnostic? Plug it into any computer, regardless of operating system.

This is exactly the goal of a new technology called TrueFFS developed by M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers Ltd. of Newark, Calif. – a manufacturer of flash disk data storage products used in many Internet appliances.


M-Systems is about to introduce the DiskOnKey, a new cross-platform data storage device in the form factor and size of a short, pocketable fountain pen. The idea is that users carry their data in a pocket and access it by simply plugging it into any USB-equipped computer. The need to travel everywhere with a laptop is reduced or eliminated.

This instantaneous plug-‘n’-play interoperability is designed to work on the latest Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems – without requiring users to load software drivers. When plugged into a USB port, the DiskOnKey operates as a removable hard drive.

Due for introduction in early 2001, the first DiskOnKey devices will be available in 8, 16 and 32 MB versions and initially priced as low as $65. Gigabyte versions are expected to become available in the coming months.

Because the storage media is flash memory, a DiskOnKey requires no power to preserve data. Its lack of moving parts means flash memory is the most robust and reliable data storage medium available today.


Initially, these pen-sized storage devices are being touted as a small and highly portable alternative to floppy drives and the venerable 3.5-inch diskette. Compact, self-contained and far less fragile, the DiskOnKey will initially be able to hold the data equivalent of 22 diskettes. That's enough for critical music, image, document and presentation files.

DiskOnKey "makes its easy for people to carry and access meaningful data at all times," said Dov Moran, president of M-Systems. "Your critical files, your favorite music, your important phone numbers and your children's photos all reside on a product that fits in your pocket and even plugs into a friend's computer for access."

What makes DiskOnKey most interesting, however, is its inherent ability to be more than a simple flash storage device. This is because the very technology that enables it to be a plug-‘n’-play USB component also gives it internal computing power. Each DiskOnKey contains an onboard central processing unit (CPU) that's capable of supporting and running multiple applications directly from the device itself.

That gives DiskOnKey the potential to be a computer within a computer that can add not only data storage but also new functionality to its host. It's a bit like the plug-in modules that third parties manufacture for the Handspring Visor PDA. Plug in the module and the handheld computer gains new abilities. M-Systems says it's already at work developing internal applications for the DiskOnKey, and product introductions will come in the first half of 2001.


Of course, as with all technology, there's a caveat to DiskOnKey. It's a product for the latest operating systems, not previous ones. No driver is needed for the current versions of Windows (ME and 2000), Macintosh and Linux. But older operating systems (such as Windows 98) that do not support USB mass storage class, require a driver to accept DiskOnKey.

So in the beginning don't expect DiskOnKey to work with certainty on any computer. As time goes by and PCs are updated, however, the odds of compatibility will dramatically increase.

M-Systems, in helping simplify USB interoperability, is taking a big leap in the right direction. Maybe one day USB will actually be the plug-‘n’-play technology that was promised at its introduction.

Contact M-Systems via the company’s Web site at www.m-sys.com.