What is U3?
U3 is a proprietary system mostly backed by SanDisk so that applications can be executed directly from a specially formatted USB flash drive. This system essentially allows you to take certain portable apps like Firefox or OpenOffice with all of your customizations and preferences with it. It’s a novel concept.
The U3 standard involves writing applications to the specification that anything they change on the host machine is changed back when the jump drive is removed. This is not always obeyed (see under criticisms) and even so it is still making changes to the system’s registry, even if only temporary and that is taking the company at its word.
Our problem: The U3 system does install some software, and this is where we run into problems. Users of our public machines are not allowed to install software, the machines are locked down to prevent this for obvious reasons. Illegal (unlicensed) software, viruses, general havoc and increased (amount and frequency) maintenance required if patrons were allowed to install software. The U3 system, according to their website (http://www.u3.com), states that a U3 enabled drive can operate as a normal drive by holding down the Shift key while inserting the drive. In no instance have I ever seen this work, despite their claiming so on their website, I have tried multiple times, but a U3 enabled flash drive will not be able to be read without Administrator privileges.
“With this application installed on a U3 drive it would only take a few seconds for someone with malicious intent to plug in the drive to an open USB port on a system and walk away with the passwords for that system.” From article: http://www.watchyourend.com/2006/10/06/usb-switchblade-steal-windows-passwords-browsing-history-and-more/
U3 Criticisms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U3#Criticisms
Where we are now: The easiest and most sure fire way of making your U3 enabled Flash drive compatible with University of Illinois Library public computers is to uninstall the U3 software. The uninstaller is located here: Sandisk Devices
The U3 software for SanDisk drives is now being written to the standard that the software can be re-installed, contrary to the position they previously took that once the software was gone, it was gone.
Work arounds: All students and staff have access to CITES Netfiles and should be encouraged to use this service should their flash drive be U3 enabled and not working on our public terminals.
Most files, less than 5 or 10 MB can be e-mailed to oneself using most standard, free e-mail providers like Hotmail, Yahoo, or GMail, not to mention the campus CITES Express e-mail.
Where to look next: The problem is not being ignored. There just is not a whole lot that can be done about it since U3 is a closed system, limited to software suppliers that comply to the U3 standards. This means the systems can not be changed by us, but only through the SanDisk-backed U3 collaboration. Recent updates to U3 policy appears to present a final sign of hope:
This was the same entry that said holding shift while inserting the drive would allow the drive to operate normally.
Thus, we may be able to include a U3 update or the U3 uninstaller on the public image which would allow patrons to attempt one way or another to get their USB flash drives to work. CAUTION! Uninstaller will and Update probably will destroy all data previously held on flash drive. Data should be backed up prior to taking this action. Thus patrons should be warned. We may be able to develop scripts to automate this backing up of data, but that, like this whole issue, is creating more overhead for the Library IT departments.
Closing thoughts: We will need to experiment with our own (needed) U3 drives to see if running the U3 Updates will allow the drives to work.
We are not alone in the problem of U3 drives failing to work in public-access terminals. There are many reports on the Web4lib (“for the discussion of issues relating to the creation, management, and support of library-based World-Wide Web servers, services, and applications”) mailing list of similar complaints as well as other sites, including U3’s own forums.