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The thumb drive was an prompt hit, garnering lots of of orders for samples inside hours. Later that yr, Trek went public on the Singapore inventory trade, and in 4 months—from April by way of July 2000—it manufactured and bought greater than 100,000 ThumbDrives below its personal label.

Goodbye, floppy disk

Earlier than the invention of the thumb drive, laptop customers saved and transported their information utilizing floppy disks. Developed by IBM within the Sixties, first 8-inch and later 5¼-inch and 3½-inch floppy disks changed cassette tapes as probably the most sensible moveable storage media. Floppy disks have been restricted by their comparatively small storage capability—even double-sided, double-density disks may retailer only one.44 MB of knowledge.

Through the Nineties, as the scale of information and software program elevated, laptop corporations looked for alternate options. Private computer systems within the late Nineteen Eighties started incorporating CD-ROM drives, however initially these may learn solely from prerecorded disks and couldn’t retailer user-generated knowledge. The Iomega Zip Drive, known as a “superfloppy” drive and launched in 1994, may retailer as much as 750 MB of knowledge and was writable, but it surely by no means gained widespread recognition, partly resulting from competitors from cheaper and higher-capacity arduous drives.

Laptop customers badly wanted an inexpensive, high-capacity, dependable, moveable storage machine. The thumb drive was all that—and extra. It was sufficiently small to slide in a entrance pocket or cling from a keychain, and sturdy sufficient to be rattled round in a drawer or tote with out harm. With all these benefits, it successfully ended the period of the floppy disk.

$7 billion

In 2021, world gross sales of thumb drives from all producers surpassed $7 billion, a quantity that’s anticipated to rise to greater than $10 billion by 2028.

However Trek 2000 hardly grew to become a family identify. And the inventor of the thumb drive and Trek’s CEO, Henn Tan, didn’t develop into as well-known as different {hardware} pioneers like Robert Noyce, Douglas Engelbart, or Steve Jobs. Even in his residence of Singapore, few folks know of Tan or Trek.

Why aren’t they extra well-known? In spite of everything, mainstream corporations together with IBM, TEAC, Toshiba, and, finally, Verbatim licensed Trek’s know-how for their very own reminiscence stick gadgets. And a number of different corporations simply copied Tan with out permission or acknowledgment.

Competing claims concerning the reminiscence stick’s origin

Thumbdrives photographed from below to look like a collection of skyscrapers. Maurizio Di Iorio

The story of the thumb drive reveals a lot about innovation within the silicon age. Seldom can we attribute innovations in digital know-how to at least one particular person or firm. They stem as a substitute from tightly knit networks of people and corporations working cooperatively or in competitors, with advances made incrementally. And this incremental nature of innovation signifies that controlling the unfold, manufacturing, and additional growth of recent concepts is nearly unimaginable.

So it’s not shocking that overlapping and competing claims encompass the origin of the thumb drive.

In April 1999, the Israeli firm M-Techniques filed a patent utility titled “Structure for a Common Serial Bus-based PC flash disk.” This was granted to Amir Ban, Dov Moran, and Oron Ogdan in November 2000. In 2000, IBM started promoting M-Techniques’ 8-MB storage gadgets in the USA below the less-than-memorable identify DiskOnKey. IBM has its personal declare to the invention of a side of the machine, primarily based on a year-2000 confidential inside report written by certainly one of its workers, Shimon Shmueli. Considerably much less credibly, inventors in Malaysia and China have additionally claimed to be the primary to give you the thumb drive.

The required components have been actually ripe for selecting within the late Nineties. Flash reminiscence grew to become low cost and sturdy sufficient for shopper use by 1995. The circulation of knowledge through the World Vast Net, together with software program and music, was exploding, growing a requirement for moveable knowledge storage.

When know-how pushes and customers pull, an invention can appear, on reflection, virtually inevitable. And all the purported inventors may actually have give you the identical important machine independently. However not one of the many unbiased tales of invention paint fairly as clear an origin story—or had as a lot affect on the unfold of the thumb drive—as the story of Tan in Singapore.

Henn Tan: From truant to entrepreneur

Man with glasses sits in office chair surrounded by office furniture and computer terminalsHenn Tan, proven right here in 2017, fought a collection of principally dropping battles in opposition to those that pirated Trek 2000’s ThumbDrive design and in opposition to rival patent claims. Yen Meng Jiin/Singapore Press/AP

Tan, the third of six brothers, was born and raised in a kampung (village) within the neighborhood of Geylang, Singapore. His dad and mom, working arduous to make ends meet, commonly left Tan and his brothers alone to roam the streets.

The primary in his household to attend highschool, Tan shortly fell in with a rebellious crowd, skipping college to hang around at roadside “sarabat” (drink) stalls, wearing “shaggy embroidered denims, imbibing espresso and cigarettes, and tossing his lengthy mane as he polemicized about rock music and human rights,” based on a 2001 article within the Straits Occasions. After a caning for truancy in his third yr of highschool that served as a wake-up name, Tan settled right down to his research and accomplished his O-level exams. He entered the Nationwide Service in 1973 as a army police teacher, and after serving the required two years, he took a job as a machinist at a German multinational agency.

This wasn’t a uncommon job on the time. Within the late Sixties Singapore had launched into a crash program of industrialization, providing incentives to multinational corporations, particularly in such high-tech fields as electronics and semiconductors, to arrange factories on the island. By the early Seventies, Singapore was residence to manufacturing vegetation for Fairchild Semiconductor, Normal Electrical, Hewlett Packard, and Texas Devices, amongst others. These corporations have been joined by the Japanese companies Matsushita (now Panasonic) in 1973 and Nippon Electrical Firm (now NEC) in 1977.

Tan diligently saved cash to pay for driving classes. As quickly as he had his license, NEC’s semiconductors division employed him as a gross sales govt. Three years later, in 1980, he moved to Sanyo as a regional gross sales supervisor. Over the subsequent 15 years, he rose to the rank of gross sales director, accumulating a wealth of expertise within the electronics trade, together with connections to a variety of suppliers and prospects.

The Asian electronics trade takes off

In 1995, Tan resigned from Sanyo and bought Trek, a small, family-run electronics part buying and selling agency in his previous neighborhood of Geylang, for simply shy of US $1 million. He deliberate to develop merchandise to license or promote to a number of of the various massive multinationals in Singapore.

In the meantime, worldwide gross sales of laptop tools had began to growth. Though private computer systems and varied moveable computer systems had been round because the late Seventies, each Apple and IBM launched flagship laptops in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Together with the recognition of laptops got here a rising demand for peripherals similar to shows, modems, printers, keyboards, mice, graphics adapters, arduous drives, CD-ROM drives, and floppy drives. The dot-com growth of 1995 to 2000 additional elevated demand for private computing gear.

“Clones, in a way, are marvelous….it meant you need to have a good suggestion and you need to take advantage of it, as shortly as attainable.”—Henn Tan, as instructed to the Straits Occasions

Many of those electronics merchandise, together with the chips in them, have been produced in Asia, together with Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand—and Singapore—below the OEM system. These “authentic tools producers” made computer systems for Apple, Dell, and different corporations who outsourced the manufacturing of their designs.

By the mid-Nineties, Singapore had develop into an necessary hub for electronics manufacturing, together with arduous drives and semiconductor wafers, and the island had a major and rising electronics ecosystem with design and manufacturing experience.

Toshiba offers Tan his massive break

All this exercise, nevertheless, didn’t create a simple path for Tan. A lot of his previous contacts from Sanyo wouldn’t do enterprise with a no-name like Trek. And few proficient engineers wished to work for an organization that appeared to supply little assure of long-term employment. However Tan endured, and after two years, in 1998, he acquired his massive break: Toshiba Electronics in Singapore appointed Trek as an official design home, an settlement by way of which Trek would design and manufacture merchandise to be bought below the Toshiba label.

Particularly, Toshiba wished an MP3 participant, a compact and moveable solid-state machine that would copy music information from a pc, to which it could be related through a USB plug, after which play the music again. Although this was earlier than Apple’s 2001 iPod made these gadgets well-liked worldwide, various MP3 gamers of various high quality have been already in the marketplace within the late Nineties.

Because the originator of flash reminiscence, Toshiba manufactured storage chips utilized in private computer systems, laptops, and digital cameras. Toshiba additionally made moveable radios and growth packing containers. It wasn’t odd that the corporate wished to leap into the MP3-player fray.

However Tan reasoned that “if the corporate simply manufactured the participant, it could not make some huge cash,” based on a 2005 article within the Straits Occasions. Tan thought that by leaving out the flexibility to play music, the machine would develop into extra versatile, in a position to deal with not simply MP3s but additionally textual content, spreadsheets, photos—any sort of laptop file. Many corporations have been already promoting music gamers, however an inexpensive, USB-driven, versatile storage machine might need a good larger market, Tan suspected, and he might be first to faucet it.

Tan did give Toshiba its music participant. However he additionally set his engineers to work on a product that was primarily a music participant with out the participant. The consequence was the thumb drive.

From well-liked product to pirate battle

a block diagram with the words USB Connector, D12 (Driver), Micro-Controller, Flash Memory, Additional USB port, ROM, RAM, and Hard-lock Switch appearing in individual rectanglesTrek’s patent utility for the ThumbDrive included this drawing.

Attending to a working product was not trivial—the drive required not solely the suitable mixture of {hardware} but additionally specifically designed firmware that allowed the solid-state storage to work together with quite a lot of laptop working methods.

However the thumb drive, with its flash reminiscence and USB interface, was hardly a totally novel invention. Tan didn’t invent flash reminiscence, which was the brainchild of Toshiba engineer Fujio Masuoka in 1980. Nor did he invent the USB port, which had been round since 1996. What was novel was the mix of the USB with flash reminiscence plus a controller and applicable firmware, all sealed right into a plastic case to make a marketable shopper product.

Native circumstances can partly clarify why the thumb drive got here to be invented the place and when it did: Tan’s expertise at NEC and Sanyo, Trek’s contract with Toshiba, and the connections Trek’s engineers had made throughout earlier internships at different corporations in Singapore have been all necessary. Those self same components, nevertheless, additionally made the invention troublesome to manage. As soon as the concept of the thumb drive was on the market, many electronics companies instantly set to creating their very own variations. Tan had filed a patent utility for his invention in 2000, a month earlier than the German tech truthful the place Trek launched the machine, however a pending patent did little to cease copycats.

Along with claims by M-Techniques and IBM, maybe probably the most difficult rivalry got here from the Chinese language firm Netac Know-how. It additionally claimed to have invented the flash reminiscence stick. Cheng Xiaohua and Deng Guoshun had beforehand labored for Trek and had seen some growth boards associated to flash reminiscence. They returned to Shenzhen, China, and based Netac in 1999.

Shenzhen on the time was a hotbed of electronics copycatting—DVD gamers, mobile telephones, MP3 gamers, and quite a few different shopper electronics have been produced as “shanzhai” items, outdoors the bounds of mental property legal guidelines. Netac’s declare to (and manufacturing of) its thumb drive match this sample of appropriation.

Netac and Trek subsequently even entered into an settlement below which Trek would fund a few of Netac’s analysis and growth and Trek would achieve rights to fabricate and distribute the ensuing merchandise outdoors of China. Regardless of this collaboration, Netac sought and was granted a patent on the thumb drive inside China.

Henn Tan thought that by leaving out the flexibility to play music, the machine would develop into extra versatile.

Electronics pirates all over the world then went after the thumb drive. Tan fought them arduous and generally received. Had Trek been a bigger firm with extra assets and extra patent expertise, the story might need had a unique ending. Because it was, although, Trek’s patents stood on comparatively weak floor. Starting in 2002, Tan introduced go well with in Singapore in opposition to a handful of corporations (together with Electec, FE World Electronics, M-Techniques, and Ritronics Parts) for patent infringement. After a number of years of courtroom battles and lots of of hundreds of {dollars} in authorized charges, Trek received that case, persuading the choose that its ThumbDrive was the primary machine ever designed to be plugged straight into a pc with out the necessity for a cable. An appeals courtroom in the UK, nevertheless, was not persuaded, and Trek misplaced its patent there in 2008. Tan additionally pursued, with little success, claims at the USA Worldwide Commerce Fee in opposition to different corporations, together with Imation, IronKey, Patriot, and Verbatim. However even the choice in Singapore was little greater than an ethical victory. By the late 2000s, thousands and thousands of thumb drives had already been produced, by numerous corporations, with out Trek’s license.

“Clones,” Tan instructed the Straits Occasions in 2005, “in a way, are marvelous. Within the enterprise world, particularly if you find yourself in Asia, so long as something makes a revenue, you do it.” If somebody have been copying you, Tan reasoned, “it meant you need to have a good suggestion and you need to take advantage of it, as shortly as attainable.”

In the end, Tan and Trek turned their consideration to new merchandise, every bettering barely on the final. By 2010, Trek had developed one other pioneering machine—the Flu Drive or Flu Card. This modified thumb drive may additionally wirelessly transmit knowledge between gadgets or to the cloud. Though Tan nonetheless tried to guard his invention with patents, he had additionally embraced a brand new path: success by way of steady novelty.

The Flu Card loved modest success. Though not extensively taken up as a stand-alone machine, its Wi-Fi connectivity made it appropriate for shopper electronics gadgets similar to cameras and toys. In 2014, Trek signed offers with Ricoh and Mattel China to license the Flu Card design.

Trek additionally tried to maneuver into new markets, with restricted success, together with the Web of Issues, cloud know-how, and medical and wearable gadgets.

Trek’s struggles and Tan’s fall

Man with white shirt, tie, and glasses holds thumb drive labeled SWIPE close to the cameraHenn Tan holds up a ThumbDrive throughout an interview in Singapore in January 2006.Nicky Loh/Reuters/Alamy

Trek’s income from licensing the ThumbDrive and the Flu Card was not ample to maintain it worthwhile. However as a substitute of admitting how badly the corporate was doing, in 2006, Tan and his chief monetary officer started falsifying Trek’s accounts, deceiving auditors and shareholders. After these misdeeds have been revealed by monetary auditors Ernst & Younger in 2015, Tan stepped down as chairman and chief govt and in August 2022 pled responsible to falsifying accounts. As of this writing, Tan stays in jail in Singapore. His son, Wayne Tan, continues as Trek’s deputy chairman.

In the meantime, the thumb drive lives on. Though most of us transmit our information over the Web—both as e-mail attachments or by way of providers like Google Drive and Dropbox—thumb drives (now operating to capacities measured in terabytes) stay a handy machine for carrying knowledge in our pockets.

They’re used as a fast technique to switch a file from one laptop to a different, move out press kits at conferences, lock and unlock computer systems, carry apps to run on a shared laptop, again up journey paperwork, and even, generally, retailer music. They’re used for nefarious functions as properly—stealing information or inserting malware into goal computer systems. And they’re particularly helpful for the safe switch of encrypted knowledge too delicate to ship over the Web.

In 2021, world gross sales of the gadgets from all producers surpassed $7 billion, a quantity that’s anticipated to rise to greater than $10 billion by 2028, based on Vantage Market Analysis.

Hero or antihero?

Typically, we consider inventors as heroes, boldly going the place nobody has gone earlier than. However Tan’s story isn’t that easy.

Tan does deserve a spot in shopper electronics historical past—he conceived the machine with out seeing one first, made it work, manufactured it in portions, and unfold it broadly, each deliberately by way of licensing and unintentionally by way of copying. However full credit score for the thumb drive actually belongs extra to the atmosphere—the concepts circulating on the time and the networks of purchasers and suppliers—than any particular person.

Furthermore, the conclusion of Tan’s story suggests he’s extra antihero than hero. We often admire inventors for his or her tenacity and grit. In Tan’s case, these qualities contributed to his downfall. Decided to take ethical and monetary credit score for the thumb drive, Tan went to extraordinary lengths—even breaking the legislation—in an effort to make his firm and himself successful. The thumb drive exhibits how difficult tales of invention typically are.

This text seems within the February 2023 print difficulty.

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