Pervasive WiFi and cloud services mean there's less need for USB thumb drives. They will die a slow death as users hit connectivity and online storage constraints, as well as limited drive space on tablets.
I rarely find use for my accumulated USB thumb drives thanks to cloud services and ubiquitous networking, but a few companies still see potential in a form factor that's seen declining growth in recent years.
Earlier this month at CES, Imation debuted its 2-in-1 Micro USB Flash Drive targeted at Android device owners. The drive provides them with additional storage space through a direct connection, using either a standard or a micro USB connector. This lets them transfer or view content without the need for a computer. It is compatible with most Android devices.
By telephone from the floor of CES, Imation's executive director of product management and marketing, Toshi Hokari, told me the company sees potential for the new device. Users are running out of space on their phones, either because of the copious amount photos and videos they are generating, or because they want to access multimedia content without blowing their data usage plans out of the water.
The Imation 2-in-1 Micro USB Flash Drive will range in capacity from 16 GB to 64 GB and will allow users to manually move files back and forth. Hokari said there is potential for other devices to be supported, such as iPhones, which don't allow for extra storage media, such as microSD cards, to be added.
I can see Hokari's point about having a quick and easy way to move files to and from a smartphone. Although I'm not a big picture taker and am fiercely proud of the fact I've never snapped a selfie, within one year of iPhone ownership I needed to free up space in order to download and install iOS 7. Even though everything is presumably backed up to iCloud, it might have been simpler just to be able to drag old photos off the phone for transfer to my PC for later sorting.
I also recently invested in a Windows-based Dell tablet that includes a USB port. Although that tablet is set up to sync files automatically with my laptop over WiFi on my home network using a third-party cloud service, I could see the value of being able to quickly transfer over large files using a thumb drive or watching movies off USB flash drive when travelling. That being said, my tablet also has a micro-SSD slot. Using a small card would be preferable to having even the tiniest thumb drive sticking out of the side.
SanDisk, meanwhile, sees potential for a USB flash drive to do more than just carry files between devices. It can act as a media streaming device. Its Connect Wireless Flash Drive adds up to 64 GB of storage space to an iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire, or Android device and can be used with PC and Mac computers, as well. Users can store movies, photos, music, and documents. They can then access them wirelessly on as many as eight devices and stream media simultaneously to as many as three of those devices.
Although the drive's battery recharges via USB, it does not need to be plugged into a device to access the content, which is what makes it notable, said Gregory Wong, principal analyst with Forward Strategies. “It's not constrained by a particular slot.”
However, the USB flash drive market has declined a great deal because it's a form factor designed for a PC-centric world, he said. Even with the faster USB 3.0 interface, the need for flash thumb drives will continue to dwindle.
Wong said tablets could potentially slow the decline. Manufacturers tend to focus on features and specifications that affect the user experience, such as screen resolutions and processing power, while trying at the same time to get the cost down. As a result, they tend to skimp on storage. Users can rely on cloud storage instead, but those services are constrained by connectivity. Wong said that external media such as a USB thumb drive can still be handy for storing, accessing, and moving files, but micro-SSD cards can serve that purpose, as well.
There are still other handy uses for flash drives. Windows to Go, for example, is a fully manageable corporate Windows 8 Enterprise environment that can boot and run from a USB flash drive, and a number of open-source apps such as Firefox come in portable versions.
But in the long term, it looks as though USB flash drives will follow in the footsteps of floppy drives and rewritable DVDs as users stream more content or access it from a network location. For now, I think I will rummage through my box of thumb drives to see what's on them.
This article originally appeared in EBN's sister publication EETimes.