Embedded Designs Move Into Flash Drives - Embedded.com

Embedded Designs Move Into Flash Drives

M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers Limited and SanDisk Corporation today announced the creation of the U3 platform; a new hardware and software platform that will expand the USB flash drive market beyond storage. The goal of U3 LLC, based in Redwood City, California, is to transform the USB flash drive market from simple storage devices into exciting new consumer products that people can use to carry, store and launch their own applications and data on any PC wherever they go. Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show 2005, U3 will create an expanded market of innovative applications for one of the fastest-growing consumer electronics devices in history. Analysts predict that more than 70 million USB drives will sell in 2005. M-Systems and SanDisk are innovators and leaders of the USB flash drive market, and will provide substantial related IP and technical expertise to the U3 platform.

Consumers have quickly embraced USB flash drive technology for its ability to transport large amounts of data from one PC to another. Because of its success, new vendor specific solutions have emerged in an attempt to use USB flash drives for more than storage. However, these efforts have been hampered by a lack of the standardization required to ensure multi-vendor interoperability and compatibility. There are no standards today that enable an independent software developer to create applications that are portable and secure for all USB flash drives. However, consumers who buy U3-compliant USB Flash drives will have the ability to take U3-compliant applications with them wherever they go.

The U3 platform includes a hardware specification as well as Application Program Interfaces (APIs) for software developers to access the unique mobility and security features available on these devices. U3 drives will contain a Launch Pad desktop interface to simplify viewing, launching, downloading and managing all U3 compliant applications stored on the devices.

U3's suite of software development tools will make it possible for software applications to store and retrieve data on a U3 device, enhance security by accessing the U3 platform standard features, and mobilize applications so they can be carried and launched on any computer. With the number of portable applications expected to be available, USB flash drive vendors may bundle applications that will appeal to specific market segments, such as healthcare applications, gaming, business productivity and more.

“U3 creates a new, open, standard platform that will take USB flash drives from the simple storage devices they are today to portable devices that are empowered by rich applications, harnessing the creative energy of a multitude of independent developers,” said Eli Harari, SanDisk's president and chief executive officer. “This platform will dramatically increase the value of USB drives to consumers and developers alike. SanDisk and M-Systems intend to strongly support and promote the U3 platform creating what we hope will become the U3 Economy.”

Building a community of software developers will be a top priority for U3. U3's goal is to attract software developers by providing access to a large and growing base of U3 enabled devices. U3 currently plans to provide developers ongoing support including development tools, business and technical support and a Web-based distribution channel where millions of users will be able to easily purchase and download U3 compatible applications.

“U3 will unite the industry around best-of-breed technology to increase overall value to the consumer and open a whole new world of opportunities for software developers,” said Dov Moran, president and chief executive officer of M-Systems. “U3 plans to build a robust infrastructure for consumers, developers and manufacturers of USB flash drives. The vision of U3 is to expand the USB Flash Drive from its current role as a simple, convenient storage device into a new consumer product that people can use to carry, store and launch their own applications on any PC.”

U3 plans to offer software developers an organization dedicated to developing and maintaining the U3 specifications, plus software development kits and other tools to speed time to market, minimize investment, and provide a robust and standard platform. “Software applications for flash drives have been largely developed for proprietary devices with limited market opportunity,” said Joe Unsworth analyst at Gartner Inc. “Without a standard, developers were lacking key features to enable mobility and robust security, lacking multi-vendor interoperability, and lacking open, standards-based development tools. Creating a unified standard for USB drive application development will fuel innovation and foster cross-vendor compatibility.”

The first U3-compliant devices are expected to ship by this summer. Flash memory, and, in particular, NAND Flash, is responsible more than any other technology, for the explosion of personal devices like audio players/recorders and digital cameras. The few Megabits of yesteryear is up to the several giga bits today. This has opened the door for embedded designers to use large pools of data or data sets in their designs. Larger than economically imaginable just a few years ago.

One of the technologies that I have always liked is the flash disk drives. These very small self contained sticks or modules emulate the functionality of a hard drive with no moving parts. They are fast, low power, reliable, and cheap. So cheap in fact, that at the recent CEC show, companies were providing detailed documentation not in hardcopy or floppy, but on these Flash based memory sticks which they were giving away.

The densities of today's Flash disks are not that much smaller than yesterdays hard disks. The portability and easy swap capability of these drives, also adds appeal, but not just for pure memory purposes. Embedded applications and even self contained operating systems themselves can run inside these devices, all the use of the use of the USB interface.

Realizing this potential, Sandisk and M Systems have joined forces to on another layer to drive (no pun intended) these devices into more than just memory based applications. The have created the U3 platform. This is a new hardware and software structure that will expand the USB flash drive market beyond just storage.

The goal is to let people carry not just data, but, inter-operable applications. Plugging a U3 compatible device into a PC with a USB port will let the application and it's associated data live within the U3 device.

They hope to accomplish this through the use of a standard to ensure multi-vendor inter-operability and compatibility. There are no standards today that enable an independent software developer to create applications that are portable and secure for all USB flash drives. However, consumers who buy U3-compliant USB Flash drives will have the ability to take U3-compliant applications with them wherever they go.

Designers will be able to use the hardware specification to assure signal level compatibility. There will also be an Application Program Interface (API) which software developers will use to access the unique mobility and security features available on these devices.

Key is that the U3 drives will map right onto a PC's desktop. A Launch Pad interface will simplify viewing, launching, downloading and managing all U3 compliant applications stored on the devices.

I feel that a part of this type of functionality is available now through the use of CD R/W's. Programs and data can live happily on a CD R/W and may be able to run on virtually any machine if written to do so. The form factor is a bit different, and, CD R/W's are slow and more fragile. Also, most likely, any application software will need to be installed first on the machine it is inserted into.

The U3 standard will let licensed software go with you and still allow the software's authors a form of protection. It also may solve the 'I have to install it first' issue. It will be interesting to see what types of applications fall from this tree. Stay tuned.

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