Feb 21 2012

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to USB Memory Sticks?

Removable USB flash drives appear to be one piece of tech that’s ready for the archives.

When was the last time you whipped out a floppy disk to store your files? The mid-1990s? Would you believe that the same phenomenon that wiped out floppy disks could make the USB memory stick extinct in a few years?

Kit Eaton of Fast Company writes that the USB memory stick’s retirement is inevitable, largely because of the rise of cloud computing and mobile broadband:

The USB memory stick is very swiftly about to be obsolete. To understand why, you've only got to look at how ubiquitous they are now. They're a handful of dollars at your convenience store, novelty designs compete with austere ones, and they're thrown around like confetti as promos at tradeshows. Any tech that's got to this level of commodity is due to be banished to the history books. It's just the way of things.

I jest, but USB memory stick tech hasn't really advanced ever, even while it's flourished like crazy to fill a technological need — moving files swiftly and easily between computers, faster and with more convenience than burnable CDs. That's partly why it's gotten so cheap so fast. But this also means that a bunch of other technologies have been advancing, and are about to make the USB stick obsolete.

It's all about the mobile computing revolution, which has done two very important things: introduced people to the idea of accessing wireless data on the go, or anywhere they could imagine, and also changed how people think about computer files.

Eaton makes a good point, but his theory of extinction hinges on the quick advancement and distribution in access to cloud computing and mobile broadband in order to supplant UBS drives as the go-to storage solution.

The cloud and mobile broadband are definitely improving all the time in urban areas, but file sizes are also increasing, which puts more pressure on wireless access to use more bandwidth. And while physical storage might be getting cheaper, bandwidth certainly isn’t. Which means relying on the cloud or Wi-Fi exclusively could become a costly commodity.

So it presents a choice to the user: Is it better to pay a vendor a recurring fee for storage (either directly through payments or indirectly through advertising or “freemium” options)? Or is it better to grab a cheap USB stick for less than $10 and worry about making sure the physical drive never gets lost or stolen?

Another argument in favor of the USB stick is the deployment of USB 3.0. The USB standard has evolved while the cloud has gained prominence, with USB 3.0 data transfers said to be 10 times faster than USB 2.0 speeds — so it’s not as if physical storage is no longer innovating.

The trade-offs between physical and virtual storage might mean different strokes for different folks, for now. And it also might mean that the USB memory stick won’t ever become a dinosaur.

What do you think? Are USB memory sticks done for?


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