The lighter side of USB thumb storage

It's OK to have fun now and then; the portable USB flash memory comes in handy, too

As the replacement for the venerable floppy disk, USB flash memory drives are one of the few areas of IT that have a pronounced sense of humor.

Thumb drives have dressed in the guise of rubber duckies, plates of spaghetti, tiki idols and sushi, as well as pulling double duty as executive pens, laser pointers, wrist watches and spy cameras.

Apparently, USB flash drives as comic relief isn't a passing fad, either. As Douglas Krone, CEO of thumb drive reseller Dynamism Inc., put it, "Once something becomes an everyday item, that's when we want something to be unique about it."

Krone's company sells USB thumb drives that come as actual rubber thumbs, stuffed animals and mini-SUVs, but his company's hottest-selling item is the sushi drive — flash memory in the raw.

The idea for the sushi drive was born when Kunihiro Kawahara, CEO of Tokyo-based USB manufacturer Solid Alliance Inc., decided he wanted to send a gift to business partners and friends. One day, while walking through Tokyo's restaurant district, he took in the ubiquitous wax sushi replicas adorning restaurant windows and decided it was a match. "[Solid Alliance] happened upon this incredible phenomenon," Krone said. The company isn't alone. Dolling up USB drives has become something like a cottage industry, with new designs appearing regularly.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Research in Hayward, Calif., says that like the cell phone and MP3 player, the thumb drive's miniature size has collided with the infinite uses for resin material.

"The one drive I saw that was probably the most twisted was a Barbie doll, where you pull the head off to plug it in," King said. (See our Wacky Thumb Drives image gallery for a look at USB Barbie, USB sushi and several others.)

Northbrook, Ill.-based iPromo LLC sells thumbs drives that are housed in Swiss Army knives and others that come in waterproof, leather and aluminum cases. There's even an iPromo model embedded with genuine Austrian Swarovski crystal that's designed to be worn as a necklace.

Thumb drives are priced from low-end 128MB models selling for $9 all the way up to $200 for an 8GB consumer model. The best-sellers, according to vendors, are the 1GB and 2GB models. On average, a 4GB drive will go for about $100 this holiday season.

When it comes to small storage, the flash drive is king. Reseller Memory Suppliers in Niles, Ill., sells the MIB 64MB iStick, which it claims is the world's smallest USB thumb drive, at a wafer-thin 2.8mm (about .011 of an inch) thick.

Sony Electronics also took the notion of compact to the next level with its Micro Vault Tiny drive. Measuring roughly one-half inch wide and just over one inch long, the drive comes in colors that denote the device's capacity -- ranging from 256MB to 4GB.

The drives suggested retail prices range from $29.99 to $199.99.

Memory Suppliers also sells several iterations of the flash memory drive, including the Presidio Pen, which incorporates a USB drive with a pen and MP3 player.

"Today, you really can carry your laptop around with you on your key chain," King says. "So why not make it fun?"

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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