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If you store e-mail online at Gmail or Yahoo Mail, digital photos at Snapfish or Flickr, documents at a virtual storage site like Box.net, or your personal profile at MySpace, you’re using what networking professionals call Web 2.0 – a growing collection of services that let you leave your personal data on a Web server and access it from anywhere, often using software applications that also reside online.

But there’s a competing personal-computing technology that’s evolving in the opposite direction. Programmers are creating versions of the free Linux operating system small enough to fit on – and boot directly from – a USB flash drive. And now several companies are marketing and developing ways to use these ultra-portable storage devices to carry all of one’s data and applications – including personalized desktop environments resembling mini-operating systems. In this way, you can have all your data with you at all times – ready to plug into any computer you happen to be near.

This alternative could appeal to computer users who are not entirely convinced of the reliability, privacy, and security of Web-based storage and software. “With all of the Web 2.0 sites, we’ve achieved an aspect of independence [from our computers],” says Richard Kilmer, CEO of Herndon, VA-based InfoEther, which is testing a flash-drive operating environment called indi. “All you need to use Web 2.0 is a browser and an Internet connection. But that kind of independence comes at a cost: you become highly dependent on those sites existing, and keeping your data around, and not changing the terms on what you can do with it.”

In 2005, consumers and businesses spent more than $2 billion on USB flash drives worldwide, according to technology research firm Gartner. And the company expects sales to increase 15 percent per year through 2010, driven in part by interest in “smart drives” carrying software or operating environments. It helps that these drives are increasingly capacious and affordable: a one-gigabyte drives can now be purchased for $40-50.

The best-known system for carrying applications and data on a USB drive is from U3, which is jointly owned by flash-drive manufacturers M-Systems and SanDisk, both of Sunnyvale, CA. U3’s system is designed mainly to run third-party applications, such as Web browsers and instant-messaging software, directly from a flash drive, rather than having to install the software on a local hard drive. This way users can, for example, transport their personal copies of Mozilla Firefox or Skype along with all the bookmarks and preferences they’ve created.

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