USB flash drives have evolved from their initial use as marketing trinkets to devices capable of addressing corporate needs ranging from mobile-computing platforms to files stores with encryption and biometrics protection.

Winson Yu, vice president of sales in North America for reseller, said he has watched thumb drives evolve at a staggering pace. Yu began his career 20 years ago selling 5MB hard drives for IBM. Today, he sells thumb drives half the size of a stick of gum with 8GB capacity, which are expected to jump to 16GB capacity by the end of the year. sold tens of thousands of 8GB drives to a Fortune 500 company as part of a corporate data backup plan. The company, which asked not to be identified, said it is using the drives for its 10,000-person sales force.

"For them to back up their laptops by going through the network is not very viable. So they've installed software on their laptops, and every couple of days it prompts them to plug in the [thumb drive] to back up their data. It's a scheduled operation for them," Wu said.

Another Fortune 500 company that USB007 sells to, uses thousands of the thumb drives to upgrade software on standalone machinery at remote locations that had previously required the use of a laptop. Business uses of USB thumb drives are clearly expanding. Joseph Unsworth, a principal analyst at research firm Gartner, said he too sees growing thumb drive use in the corporate ranks. Unsworth said drive adoption is about to see another big boost from Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, which, through its ReadyBoost function, will allow thumb drives to cache applications for faster computer boot times, in some cases twice as fast as conventional startups.

Microsoft's Vista addresses what's perhaps the biggest concern of IT managers related to USB memory sticks – their potential to make it easy to walk away with proprietary corporate data. Vista adds system policies for controlling USB flash drive access to computers. An IT manager could set a policy that would prevent a flash memory device from working with the USB ports on a computer, while still allowing the USB port to be used with other devices.

It's also easier to secure data stored on USB drives. SanDisk makes a biometric thumb drive, which stores up to 10 fingerprints and comes with a guarantee that no one besides the owner will be able to access any data on the drive. U3 flash drives come with programs such as Secret Zip, PCLock, and Data Synchronizer.

Expanding possibilities

Over the past two years, the thumb drive has outpaced by one-and-a-half times other hardware devices in terms of storage capacity growth.

According to Gartner, more than 110 million USB thumb drives will ship worldwide this year, accounting for more than $3bn in sales. By 2008, the number of flash drives shipped will have increased to 155 million a year.

And USB drive capacity is outpacing Moore's Law by doubling every year instead of every 18 months. Capacity of those drives is expected to leap from 16GB for most manufacturers by the end of this year to 32GB in 2008.

Kanguru Solutions has jumped ahead of the pack with its Kanguru Flash Drive Max, which comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions. The only catch is that capacity comes at a price: $800 for 16GB, $1,500 for 32GB and $2,800 for 64GB.

Program and data portability

Some USB drives have recently developed the capability to run sophisticated applications, replicate email and transfer desktop- and laptop-settings, directly from the USB stick in conjunction with any Windows PC.

Last autumn, SanDisk and M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers launched a thumb drive with an intelligent U3 chip that lets you to store and launch applications, such as Skype for VoIP, Trillian for instant messaging and Mozilla's Firefox Internet browser. (In late July, SanDisk announced that it was buying its former competitor, M-Systems, for $1.6bn).

The U3 chip, manufactured by U3, comes in thumb drives with capacities up to 4GB that are able to store an entire Windows desktop. The drive can store user preferences, profiles and settings. You can plug the thumb drive into another person's PC or laptop and use it as if it were your own. Your email program and browser, for example, can run from the USB stick on any Windows PC with all your messages and bookmarks and settings intact. It will appear as if the programs were installed on the local PC, when they're actually on the USB drive.

U3 technology comes with sophisticated security features, including conventional passwords and 128bit AES encryption. It allows users to choose from a series of photos, which authorise access if a user clicks them in the right order.

Also last autumn, Lexar began shipping its competing software, PowerToGo, which is available on all of its JumpDrive USB Flash drives. PowerToGo lets you store and access programs by installing and running many standard Windows applications directly from a USB flash drive. One feature Lexar says is popular, and unique to its PowerToGo-equipped JumpDrive, is that all cached data is stored on the USB drive, leaving no evidence of its use on the host computer. The use of U3 drives may leave behind empty folders on the host computer.

PowerToGo offers compatibility with more than 100 pre-approved applications, including Windows 2000 or XP, Skype and Firefox. Another advantage to PowerToGo is that it is Windows Vista compatible; SanDisk's U3 technology does not currently support Vista.

PowerToGo offers some application flexibility. When users want to install a Windows application that doesn't appear on Lexar's list of pre-approved PowerToGo applications, they can pay $29 to purchase a platform add-on called InstallAnything, which will enable installation of many standard Windows applications in JumpDrive products.

JumpDrive Lightning owners can install the PowerToGo software free of charge from Lexar's website. Lexar's premium JumpDrive Lightning thumb drive offers the fastest data-transfer rates (18MBps write and 24MBps read). The JumpDrive Lightning is available in 1GB and 2GB capacities at retail prices starting at $79. We tested the Lightning drive and we were able to download a 150MB file with high-resolution digital photographs in about 12 seconds.

Pushing into new areas

Steffen Frank Hellmold, general manager for Lexar's USB flash drive business unit, says that because the thumb drive industry is basically devoid of standards, other than the USB-port connection, "there's room for tremendous creativity".

ATP Electronics built its waterproof Petito drive to store the personal information of scuba divers and its ToughDrive USB flash drive to withstand a 3m dive on to concrete. SanDisk touts a drive that's over the top in the rugged department. Its Cruzer Titanium was built to withstand the crushing force of a Volkswagen Beetle (2,000lbs). PC Advisor tested that claim by repeatedly driving an employee's car over the ruggedised thumb drive. While the drive's body came away with a few scratches, there were no dents, and we didn't lose a single file.