One of the odd questions I keep being asked about the iPad is "Where do you plug in USB stuff?" It's a sister phrase to the weird criticism oft thrust at Apple's device, "Ah, it's too limiting for me: I can't plug in USB sticks." This is weird because other makers, notably Apple's biggest competitor, Samsung, follow the same proprietary connector path and because I've never once thought about plugging a stick into the iPad. Maybe, soon, most people won't think like this either—because the USB memory stick is very swiflty 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 got 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.
What's A USB Stick For, Anyway?
USB sticks are useful for two things: Storing files temporarily, and sharing with another computer user. To drop a file on your USB stick you use your computer's file manager, then you pop it in the new computer and access it.
Dropbox, an app that's used by 45 million people who upload 1 million files every finve minutes, is at the forefront of revolutionizing this entire idea, and it works wirelessly: To drop something into your Dropbox storage you simply do that ... and it's accessible on any computer you log into anywhere, and also on hordes of mobile devices like iPads, iPhones or their Android, Windows or RIM equivalents. You can even share access to the files you've got temporarily stored in your Dropbox with your friends, all with a click of an email.
With free tech like this why would you hunt down your USB stick, fiddle with files, wait while it transfers, disconnect it, stick it into the new device ... and so on? Isn't it easier to drop your data into Dropbox and then access it anywhere and anywhen?
Dropbox is actually part of the cloud computing explosion because when you drop a file into it it's stored "in the cloud" ready to be accessed anywhere you need. iTunes Match does something similar, as does Spotify: Both are cloudy-tech, using slightly different systems, but both allow you as the end-user to access your files—music ones in this case—wherever you are. The Amazon Kindle tech is similar, because you can access your same book files on the Kindle e-readers or other devices anytime you like and your bookmarks and such are shared among them. In a similar sense apps like Instagram or Facebook or Twitter do the same for your photos and videos, with Flickr and Picasa being overtly for this use: You almost don't need to "store" photos on your smartphone once you've taken them, as long as you upload them to a cloud-ish storage service like these, ready to access them anywhere.
Systems like this are becoming a standard way of accessing many of your most important files on different platforms. Meanwhile apps like Instapaper offer a similar trick for reading online articles later on—instead of having to save that long-form Sunday Times article you found on your desktop PC onto a USB stick so you can read it on your work laptop on a coffee break, you simply pop it into Instapaper and it keeps tabs on the article for you, so you can read it later on your laptop, tablet, or even your smartphone while commuting on the metro.
The Mobile Revolution
That's the point at which devices like the smartphone or tablet enter the argument because as part of the design of their systems they really do make you think differently about files that you used to think of as "yours." For example, all the photos you painstakingly load into Facebook on your home PC are instantly accessible via the Facebook app on your phone without you having to do anything, and ones you snap on your phone are instantly reachable at home.
Subtly the smartphone, which means mainly the iPhone, has changed how we all think about using mobile data and mobile Net tech—previously it was rarely accessed, and now we all do it all the time so its price has dropped (and it's use is poised for a huge growth). These devices also seamlessly connect to Wi-Fi networks and thus are online pretty much all the time...which is absolutely key to enabling the kind of wireless file sharing that Dropbox enables or the wireless streaming that Spotify relies on.
We haven't even mentioned Google's rumored "Drive" system yet, either: A system that will carry all of Google's brand might with it, as well as being seamlessly wound throughout Google's other offerings, and presumably letting you access your files wherever you like for what maybe zero cost (as long as Google can sell you adverts). Nor have we mentioned iWork, Apple's cloud-based business productivity suite that lets you work on documents stored in the cloud, or Microsoft's Office 360 apps which let you do the same.
Basically wireless, mobile, and cloud-based tech are outpacing the humble USB stick faster than an avalanche racing down a mountain.
Daddy, What's A USB Flash Drive?
That's not to say USB sticks going to entirely disappear tomorrow. Wireless file-sharing or cloud storage isn't yet completely flawless or super-accessible, and there are many users who will for a while prefer to use physical media like USB sticks to share data (and users who have to, such as between corporate computers that cannot be connected to networked services for security reasons). USB sticks are also a significant percentage of the business of big firms like SanDisk.
And there are specific super-smart uses of USB sticks that'll stay around for ages yet—like GigMark's updatable marketing ones. GigMark's been in the business since 2008, and has some patented tech that makes the humble USB stick really clever: Their IFD, or interactive flash drive, is similar to a normal one, except it has a bunch of hardware on it that means it phones home when plugged in to see if there's an update to its content available. It's designed to launch customer-personalized desktop apps that present the brand in a high-tech way, and it can deliver critical user analytics back to the parent brand so they understand user's needs more clearly. It's basically a branded USB stick par excellence.
According to CEO Parker Frost the trick is it lets customers of GigMark tech "get that user-level analytic data without having users log in to websites" at the same time that the IFD itself and its software is "powerful, clever and engaging." GigMark can even design custom packaging for the stick to match customer uses and the real strength is that if they're used for storing catalog information, the client can update the catalog for, say, 2012 on all of its pre-distributed IFD sticks and they'll also work offline—infinitely better, cheaper, and more reliable than printed catalogs.
This tech is supremely innovative, and no doubt is a hugely potent tool for marketing and for some specific use cases.
But we're still poised to ring the death knell on the USB flash drive. Its use will persist in the same kind of role that GigMark has carved out because the physical drive itself can carry a tactile marketing message in the way an app on your smartphone can't. But before long all your USB sticks will be gathering dust on your shelf because you'll have changed how you access data, as well as having more powerful cloud-based alternatives for file transport, and will be used to transparently accessing your files on a host of different platforms. After all, Apple's already decided that the USB stick's predecessor, the burnable CD and DVD, are goners...so you'd better start letting go of notions like "I saved my file on my desktop" and "copy it from the stick to your c: drive."
[Image: Flickr user Kai Hendry]