Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The USB Flashdrive Isn't Dead Yet

As technology continues to advance, change is inevitable, and no technology will remain on top for long. But is it really time to say good-bye to the humble USB drive so soon, as some have suggested? I'll admit that it's been a couple of weeks since the last time I even touched a flashdrive, and I use Dropbox for transferring small files between my computers and my phone at home. But is the cloud ready to completely replace USB drives just yet? I'd say "No way" - the cloud is certainly better than physical drives at some common tasks, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that it's much worse at other tasks.

One major disadvantage of the cloud, and the one that affects me the most, is speed. It's typically much faster to transfer files via USB than over the internet, especially if you're using a residential connection, which is poorly suited for cloud services. Even if you paid your ISP extra for a faster connection, most residential internet plans provide much lower upload speeds than download speeds, since ISPs work under the now-outdated assumption that users don't really have any need to upload files or anyplace to upload them to, so an archive only a few dozen megabytes in size can take an hour or more to become available on Dropbox. Word documents are so small that they reach the cloud pretty much instantly even on dial-up, but any heavy-duty file-sharing will go far slower than it would through a direct USB connection. As a result, although Dropbox and other services are good for basic office tasks, it's still far too slow to replace physical media completely.

Another major difference between the cloud and the physical is security. While you can share specific Dropbox folders to other Dropbox users, sometimes you've got to transfer files to a computer that doesn't have Dropbox installed. In that case, you can use your username and password to access your files via the web interface. It's pretty easy to do once or twice, but because your entire Dropbox account and everything in it will be exposed if your password is stolen, a complex and secure password is essential, and you'd better hope there aren't any keyloggers on the client machine.

When you don't have much control over a machine and can't be assured of its security, it's much easier and safer to just plug in a flashdrive with only the files that absolutely need to be transferred. Even a badly infected machine can't do anything worse than copy those files and put autorun viruses on the flashdrive, which certainly isn't great but is easy to handle if you're expecting it. Even those problems can be avoided altogether if your drive has a read-only switch.

Of course, one issue that always comes to mind when talking about the cloud is that it's only accessible via the internet. Nowadays, we find ourselves assuming that pretty much every computer is connected to the internet, and to be fair, it's usually a pretty good bet. However, that just means we're likely to be caught completely unprepared when we do eventually run into a computer that doesn't have internet access. Maybe the machine's being kept off the internet for security reasons, or maybe it's still being set up and the network drivers haven't been installed yet, or maybe the network is experiencing technical problems and is temporarily offline, or maybe the client simply doesn't have internet service. Whatever the reason may be, using physical media is the easiest way to overcome it and do what needs to be done.

Generally speaking, the advance of technology doesn't lead to obsolescence, but to diversity. While old tools eventually fade away, they don't completely disappear until long after the thing that replaced them has itself been replaced. Even now, more than a decade after the release of the iPod, CDs and CD players are still being sold on the shelves - and so, for that matter, are CD burners. USB flashdrives will remain a common pocket storage device long after they become obsolete; the ease of use and convenience guarantees that we'll be using them even after the cloud advances to the point of being a viable replacement.

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