Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Flash Drive

November 2003

By Mike Gould

In the computer world, smaller is better. And I just found a better smaller doodad that I think should be in every computer user's pocket: the Flash Drive. This is a small, solid-state memory unit that plugs into a computer's USB port and acts just like another drive. You can copy files to and from it and carry them around from computer to computer. Think of it as an electronic floppy, only faster and with more space.

Fresh Flash
The genesis of this is the Compact Flash memory originally developed for digital cameras. This is the camera's "film", the place where the pictures are stored after they are captured and before they are dumped to your computer for processing. The cool thing about the technology is that once the data is written to the device, it stays there until it is erased.

There are memory chips in the Flash Drive's package that maintain the data even when not attached to power. This differs from the standard RAM that lives in your computer: if a big, 4-state power failure happens to hit your computer before you save your work to disk, the 20-page document you almost finished there vanishes in a puff of ones and zeros and a chorus of Bad Words. (Hint: Save and Save Often.) This is because the data you are manipulating exist in non-static RAM; chips that must have a constant power supply to keep the data in them alive.

Grand Master Flash
Compact Flash, on the other hand, keeps its data just fine without power. Here's how it works:

You plug a Flash Drive into a USB socket on your computer. This could be the socket at the end of any modern USB keyboard, or in the back of your Mac or PC desktop or laptop.

The device shows up in your on your Mac's desktop, or in the My Computer folder in Windows. This happens just like inserting a CD, floppy, or other volume; you get an icon with the name of the device on it.

You double-click on the icon and Bingo (a technical term), it opens and you can drag files and folder to and from it just like any other volume.

One nice feature of this is that this works cross-platform. You can copy something onto the Flash Drive on a Mac desktop machine, and walk it across the room to the PC laptop of a colleague and download there. I did just this procedure two days after I bought the device, to the amazement of my clients.

Even better, you don't need driver software to do this - it all happens within the wonderfulness that is USB. With a Zip disk, for instance, you have to have Zip software on your computer in order for it to be read. Not so with the Flash Drive; plug and play all the way. I predict that solid state devices like this will sound the death knell for portable spinning objects such as Zip disks and floppies. Floppies have actually been dead ever since the Internet happened - anything small enough to fit on a floppy is small enough to send via email. Something that Mac users have known for quite a while and PC folk are slowly coming to understand.

A quick digression and explanation about USB is in order. This stands for Universal Serial Bus, and has been appearing on computers for about 5 years now. The USB standard defines a protocol and a connector, and if your computer has the connector, it understands the protocol. A bus is just an electrical path that conveys data in a computer; a fancy way of saying a "wire" (although it is usually a trace on a circuit board). So with the Flash Drive, you have a set of chips hanging on a USB connector, all in a package about the size of your thumb. There is in fact a brand of Flash Drives called the "Thumb Drive"

Mike Gould is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs MondoDyne Web Works, is a member of Fac·, and welcomes comments addressed to

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