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Still, U3’s system depends on Microsoft’s Windows as its underlying operating system, and it doesn’t transport a user’s overall computing environment, just applications and data. By contrast, InfoEther’s indi software turns a USB flash drive into an information appliance with its own operating environment and customized applications. Once the indi software is downloaded from InfoEther and saved on a flash drive, it launches automatically the next time the drive is plugged into a computer’s USB port. Indi includes a set of personal organizer applications, including a calendar, address book, memo pad, and instant-messenger program.

InfoEther – which released a preliminary version of its system in March, and has signed up almost 1,000 beta users – has designed indi’s applications so they can connect over the Internet with programs being run by other Indi users, allowing activities like file sharing and multiplayer games. While the indi platform and the basic applications are free, users will soon be able to buy additional “plug-in” programs from a store built directly into the Indi interface, Kilmer says.

It’s still unclear, though, whether such portable, self-enclosed operating environments will appeal to many computer users at a time when new Web-based applications seem to emerge every day. Alex Bard, CEO of goowy media in San Diego, which offers a package of online information-management tools, such as a calendar and an address book, is skeptical. “Those applications, in order to be successful, will still have to connect up to the Web to share data,” says Bard. “And if they’re connecting to the Web anyway, why do you even need a flash drive? I don’t see the true value in carrying your operating system around on a stick, unless you’re really proprietary about your data and concerned that the data you store in the cloud will be corrupted or that someone will get access to it.”

While Web-based systems like Goowy and pocket workspaces like Indi may seem to be opposites, they have something important in common: they abandon the decades-old idea of the PC as a computer user’s main information stronghold in favor of more fluid environments and user interfaces. “The notion of having everything on your fixed hard drive is going away,” says Kate Purmal, CEO of U3. “People are going to start choosing to install software on their smart drives, not their hard drives, because it’s more portable and because they want to be able to switch between computers.”

Home page image courtesy of U3. Caption: The Memorex Mini TravelDrive, a USB drive that carries U3’s personal workspace system and applications such as Mozilla Thunderbird, an e-mail management program.

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