The USB dongle: a form factor worth plugging?

Removable storage is only the beginning...

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I've recently been experimenting with those USB Flash drives that seem to be proliferating at the moment. Natty little things, they hold anything from 16MB of data and support recent versions of Windows, Linux and the Mac OS, meaning that the information they contain can be accessed on any current computer with a spare USB port. For older machines, drivers are normally supplied - for some reason every manufacturer seems to have a different device driver, which is a shame, but not the end of the world. They're handy for back-ups, neat for file transfer, a good little floppy disk replacement. My personal favourite is from Corega, not least because it is bright yellow and easy to find, and also it's a bit more robust than some of them. Of this, more later - what's apparent is that the potential for the dod-of-plastic-with-USB form factor is yet to be fully exploited, writes Jon Collins of Quocirca.

The basic USB storage 'dongle' does indeed have a number of obvious uses. Some uses are less obvious however - I have an email application that I can run from the device. It's called nPOPq, and the beauty of it is that it is self-contained - it doesn't use the Windows registry or any external files or directories to run. This means, I can plug my dongle into any Internet-connected computer and check email across all my email accounts, without having to specify them one by one and without relying on an email service provider. I can send email and have it saved to refer to later, and I can copy myself in so that I can save the email properly when I return to the mother ship. This package also provides an address book and it can work with attachments. So, when I travel, I can rely on the fact that I can perform a minimal service even if I have left my computer at home. No doubt there is an IM client, an editor and a basic spreadsheet I could squeeze on, if I really needed, and what about a Java VM...

Since I started using one of these devices, I've been noticing a whole genus of the things springing up. Because of the limitations of the form factor and the early stage of evolution, these tend to be quite restricted in their function. According to Tim Mattox, VP of Client Marketing at Dell, a key feature requested by their customers before such devices could replace floppies is the ability to boot from the device. Dell are also looking to include Bluetooth functionality on a USB storage dongle, to consolidate functionality and to increase the take-up of Bluetooth, though the success of this latter plan remains to be seen. For myself, I have been road testing a couple of USB-based security tokens, notably the eToken from Aladdin and RSA's SecurID 6100. These devices look the same as a storage device, but hold a database rather than files, which comes with strong encryption built in. There is a basic application included with each device designed to store Web usernames and passwords. Each has certain benefits over the other - the RSA capture approach is more intuitive and easier to use, and can manage network logons, whereas the Aladdin device allows editing of the resulting information and copes with more complex Web forms. With a bit of thought, the Aladdin token can also be used to store PIN numbers and other personal information. Given that it's impossible to manage all the bits of data that are thrown at us without some place to write them down, these devices give several orders of magnitude more security than post-it notes or password-protected Excel spreadsheets.

These security tokens can do a great deal more than store username/password combinations, but to do so they require a bit more infrastructure. For example, they can serve as a user's unique access key to the corporate network (note, they do require an additional password of their own), and from there they can be used as the basis for signing and encrypting documents. They are even seen as providing sufficient security to meet the legal standards for electronic signatures, in certain countries - the key phrase, apparently, is that they provide a "cryptographically safe location" for a user's private key. There are even devices from companies such as WISeKey that incorporate a fingerprint scanner on the key itself, so biometric information can be built into the authentication process. However, this is another indication of where we are in the evolution of the USB device: the WISeKey device is a secure storage device, not an encryption key. Biometrics is another thing that requires infrastructure support for corporate use, for example using biometric authentication software from companies such as ISL.

Back to storage dongles. A couple of days after I first started waxing lyrical about USB devices to my colleagues, I was postulating that one day they might replace the entire user-specific part of the computer, leaving the latter to do what it does best - display and data entry. I've since discovered that such technology already exists - devices are available such as the Xkey from Key Computing, which incorporates a processor and which can be bundled with a number of applications such as a remote client for Microsoft Exchange (in this case, from Seaside Software).

One thing's for sure - this is a form factor we're going to be seeing plenty more of. New device types are starting to appear - there are USB storage devices that are also MP3 players, for example, from the likes of Creative. Wi-Fi adaptors are already starting to appear. Cameras will follow, no doubt, and anything else that can be squeezed into a device the size of a thumb. It is not unreasonable to expect a device which is storage, camera, voice recorder and music player in one (not to mention mobile phone): indeed, it's probably a matter of months away.

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