More office apps squeezed into USB drives

LAS VEGAS - Imagine carrying your office applications and data not in a heavy notebook computer but in a USB flash drive the size of your thumb.

That's the idea behind U3's smart drive, which now features a fuller software bundle, as announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this month in Las Vegas. The additional software adapted for the U3 platform includes two office suites, from Web browser and the Yahoo toolbar.

Also at the show, SanDisk and PQI released USB drives based on the U3 platform. These and other vendors take the U3 software, a subset of the available U3-compatible applications and varying amounts of storage capacity, package them on the thumb-sized drive and brand them with the U3 logo.

U3, in Redwood City, Calif., was founded as a joint venture in late 2004 by two flash-drive vendors, SanDisk and M-Systems. Unveiled at CES a year ago, U3 and its partners introduced their first flock of products last September.

The basic idea behind the smart drive is identical to Route1's MobiKey, released last month.

In both cases, the drive is plugged into an open USB port on a Windows PC or laptop. The on-board software creates a protected space in which to run the stored applications, entirely separate from the operating system of the "host" computer.

U3 supports Windows XP and Windows 2000. When the drive is plugged into the PC, a logon screen appears. Once authenticated, the user sees a small U3 GUI, called the Launchpad. It's a series of buttons on the left for the applications stored on the drive, and on the right for navigating and managing the drive. Applications can be set to load automatically once the logon is completed. One button links to the Web-based U3 download site, where applications tailored for the U3 platform are available.

The OpenOffice suite is the open source version of the original applications developed by StarOffice, a German company acquired by Sun in 1999.

ThinkFree Office is a set of Microsoft Office-compatible desktop applications written in Java.

The Maxthon browser repackages Internet Explorer and adds an array of features, including a tabbed user interface; built-in RSS feeds; and blockers for ads, pop-ups and ActiveX controls.

SanDisk's new U3-based flash drives will range from 512MB to 4GB and priced from $50 to $300. They will be available in March. Four programs are included: Skype for VoIP, Avast Antivirus software, SignUp Shield password vault and CruzerSync, which synchronizes with Outlook data.

PQI's U3-based CoolDrive is available in 512MB, and 1GB and 2GB formats, bundled with McAfee Anti-Virus, the Migo PC synchronization application, Thunderbird e-mail and the Usafe program for password protection. Prices were not disclosed.

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